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Dialogue - Never a Gratuitous Word or Boring Moment

For starters...

Let's place this in a context rarely mentioned elsewhere. At such time dialogue becomes difficult or perplexing for writers to produce, it's usually because they have failed on some level to create interesting characters in the first place, or because they do not properly understand the role of each relevant character in the scene (please stop and read this article now if you've not already done so), or both. To complicate further, the writer may not actually understand the role of the scene in the novel. Put these three conditions together and artful dialogue becomes impossible regardless of other factors.

KEY CONCEPTS: screenplay emulation, dialogue as art, the LED, major functions of dialogue, delivery of exposition, dialogue arc, character style, tags and ellipses, provocations and disagreements, the foil character, dialogue samples.

Initial Admonitions

But let's assume the first three conditions above have been met. So where to go from here? First, a few admonitions for neophytes and middle-stagers:
    1. Best not to attempt dialogue until you understand that dialogue is art, not real life. Art imitates life only insofar as necessary. In the world of art, characters say what they must and always make it clear. Unless you're obsessed with David Mamet's early work, strongly recommend not placing speech on the page that mimics actual human blathering (btw, on the subject of Mamet, strongly recommend a close reading of the brilliant Glengarry, Glen Ross).

    2. Do not write novel dialogue without having first read, studied, and experimented with good screenplay dialogue. Download and read over screenplays relevant to your genre, then also watch the films, or at least a few scenes that correspond to the script. This is vital. In general, the best dialogue written these days can be found in screenplays or teleplays - not that great novel authors don't produce brilliant dialogue now and then, and we'll see a few below, but a classy smart screenplay is more likely to meet the goals for our purposes here. Later you can make useful comparisons between the two forms (you'll benefit hugely from this).

    3. Don't fail to realize that screenplays teach us how to the say THE MOST with THE FEWEST words. This is also vital. Again, MOST with the FEWEST. Novel dialogue should always have a reason for existence, never be gratuitous, and never overstay its welcome on the page.

    4. Refrain from drafting dialogue on the novel page until you have first drafted prototype dialogue in your literary experimentation document (LED). What do we mean? Quite simply, you maintain a separate word document for the purpose of fictional experiments conducted by you prior to insertion in the actual novel. Here you sketch a sample scene that includes chosen characters engaged in dialogue. First, create a good reason for them to converse in the context of the plot line and make certain to include elements noted below (i.e., conflict, exposition, etc.)

Functions and Forms in Brief

Dialogue's major functions succinctly stated as follows (examples below):
  • Advance the plot line or core conflict ("We must intervene by noon tomorrow, or we wait three months.")
  • Serve as characterization (see examples here)
  • Create conflict or provocation (overt or implied)
  • Engender suspense ("...and no one has ever gone inside and lived...")
  • Create or support minor complications ("We have a problem, people.")
  • Deliver exposition ("The wheeled city, driven by steam and 5,432 gears, grinds now towards Belgium.")
To satisfy the above requirements, for example, dialogue may acquire the following forms:
  • Expression of fear or apprehension over a circumstance or event ("Did you see that? By the gods, we're done!")
  • Sexual mating play: posturing, advances, overt and covert ("Kiss me, you fool.")
  • Arguments or disagreements of varying degree ignited by viewpoint disagreements or personality clash ("Hell is too good for you.")
  • Provocative topics introduced or continued (Dr. Yen replied to the student, "The soul, even the personality… all a fraud. They really don't exist.")

Critical for Both Screen and Novel

Enter late, leave early
. No different than novel plotting, best to begin dialogue in media res
. What do we mean? From on the subject of writing sharp screenplay dialogue: "Small talk is prevalent in real life, but it can be dreadfully boring to watch two people chat about the weather and other pleasantries on screen. One way to rectify this is to enter the conversation as late as you possibly can. This technique can you help you write better dialogue by allowing you to skip the boring, introductory remarks and unnecessary follow-up questions and get straight to the heart of the scene." WE couldn't have said it better!

Avoid dialogue that sounds stale. Dialogue can devolve into overly familiar patterns, as if you're imitating a bad television scene. Exorcise with extreme prejudice. Best to negate this possibility ahead of time via an energetic and unique setting populated by intriguing characters.

When utilizing dialogue to deliver exposition, make certain it's accomplished at a time and in a place that makes sense relative to the story flow, i.e., delivered artfully rather than clumsily. See notes on exposition here for more details. Note classic expo delivery by Jordan Baker, Robert Cohn, and Harding.

Refrain from inappropriate use of dialogue, especially irrelevant dialogue, by minor characters. From "Every line of dialogue in the film has to matter and move the story and characters forward. Giving lines to characters "in the room" for the mere sake that they are in the room is a very common mistake that takes away from the rest of the dialogue that should be in the script. They are there to support the lead characters and the story. If what they are saying isn’t accomplishing that, it should be cut."

Like characters and plot, dialogue also has a beginning, middle, and end - it's own arc, so to speak. Consider this carefully. What must be addressed and resolved? What must be introduced, but end with a mystery? From "Each scene of dialogue has to build to a climax, each story act of dialogue has to build to a climax, and each screenplay’s dialogue has to build to that ultimate climax at the end."

Insofar as possible, give the leading and major secondary characters their own dialogue style, e.g., Felonious Mack is a nervous petty criminal who hesitantly speaks with lines of clipped speech in contrast to the magnificent Jezzie Belle who presents herself as flamboyant and outgoing.

Punctuation purists senselessly quibble over the use of em dashes (e.g., "You should close it and -") to signify speech interruption, and ellipses "..." to signify pauses, but only in the context of novel writing. Screenplay writers use both of these, as appropriate, and it works perfectly. Truly, it's unrealistic not to include artful pauses and interruptions in the course of dialogue. In summary, do what works, but wisely.

Dialogue Samples from Novel and Stage

From Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard.
A police Detective, Chris, is staying at his father's apartment after getting kicked out by his girlfriend. This initiates an understanding of the relationship between son and father, delivers a bit of exposition, and concerns a specific topic of interest relevant to the plot line. Leonard's tags ("said") are kept simple and sparse. Also, the dialogue obeys the rule of "enter late," i.e., it opens without preliminaries, just jumps right into the subject at hand. Chris as "a lot of trouble with women."
         His dad said, "You seem to have a lot of trouble with women. They keep throwing you out."
         "I do what she wants, she comes up with something else, I don't talk to her."
         "I don't know what it is," his dad said, "you're not a bad-looking guy. You could give a little more thought to your grooming. Get your hair trimmed, wear a white shirt now and then, see if that works. What kind of aftershave you use?"
         "I'm serious."
         "I know you are and I'm glad you came to me. When'd she throw you out, last night?"
         "She didn't throw me out, I left. I phoned, you weren't home, so I stayed at Jerry's."
         "When you needed me most," his dad said. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
         "Actually," Chris said, "you get right down to it, Phyllis's the one does all the talking. She gives me banking facts about different kinds of annuities, fiduciary trusts, institutional liquid asset funds... I'm sitting here trying to stay awake, she's telling me about the exciting world of trust funds."
         "I had a feeling," his dad said, "you've given it some thought. You realize life goes on."
         "I'm not even sure what attracted me to her in the first place."
         His dad said, "You want me to tell you?"

From Piper Robbin and the American Oz Maker by Warwick Gleeson
. Piper Robbin is having a talk with her father in their Brooklyn apartment as they prepare to enjoy take-out and a movie. Note the difference in tone compared to the Leonard sample above, as well as the more vibrant energy that makes the Leonard characters seem almost flat in comparison (detective mystery vs. science fantasy genre). Note also the topics discussed are provocative and curious by their very nature. This passage establishes relationship between the two characters, allows the reader to experience their personalities, and parcels in necessary exposition. Narrative interjection is not overdone, just enough to render appropriate imagery relevant to the characters. Tags are simple, and we have a few em dashes and ellipses. And what else? A bit of friendly conflict between the father and daughter.
         "Impressive in a primitive way, mon amour précieux," Edison Godfellow said of Manhattan one night while using the remote control to locate a suitably ridiculous movie on ComFlix prior to consuming Ms. Song’s khor stew, "But like a mound of ants in comparison to London."
         Piper rolled her eyes. "Your old magical super city, eh?"
         "Yes, my own Oz," he said, followed by a whimsical smile. "I spent years planning each and every molecule."
         "But what does that matter now?"
         "Next to nothing," Edison said, verging on gloom.
         "And how much magic to erect those evil towers, Dad?"
         "Enough to solve the debt of Ireland."
         "And how many Englishmen did you piss off?"
         "Thousands, but they grinned once I created flying cars."
         Piper gave him the Bronx cheer.
         "Daughter, how is it you can behave so immaturely after more than twenty centuries?"
         "Dad, sometimes it's you who act like a child. Think of the good you could have done in the world with all that magic... And by the way, you've spouted off about London at least five times over the past week. Do you really need to rabbit-hole your shit?"
         "Psychoanalysis is a long dead pseudo-science, Piper, and you should know—"
         Enough was enough!
         She interrupted him with her signature snap: small white hands palm up above her mango head, arms elbows out and pushing high, her expression a big smiley face—all achieved in a quarter of a second.
         In reaction, his eyebrows pinched ever so slightly, as if feeling a surge of pain. "I loathe that silly snap thing," Edison said. "Must you further enhance your preposterous role as an American?"
         "I'm having fun, Dad, and for the first time since jazz was invented.”
         "But the language you damage is not—"
         "Brooklyn talk is dumb good. Brooklyn is my muther-f’n music that talks to me."
         "Please, Piper. You attempted a farcical identity restart many years ago in Hawaii. It failed miserably."
         "That's because King Kamehameha was too anxious to spread his DNA. He ruined everything."
         "Recall... you once lived as Grand Sorceress of the Holy Roman Empire. You commanded every room you ever entered with power and magnificence. Magicians feared you. Kingdoms groveled before you."
         "Yeah, yeah, and I can return to those groveling moments whenever, but it all bores me, kinda like a plate of cold putz and cheese."
         "Putz and cheese?"

From The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
(the following dialogue creates suspense as it helps define the character Laura, and her relationship to her mother, Amanda; it also supports the major complication, i.e., the problem with the social environs)
         "Laura, where have you been going when you've gone out pretending that you were going to business college?" Amanda asked.
         "I've just been going out walking."
         That's not true." Amanda said.
         "It is. I just went walking."
         "Walking? Walking? In winter? Deliberately courting pneumonia in that light coat? Where did you walk to, Laura?"      "All sorts of places—mostly in the park."
         "Even after you'd started catching that cold?"
         "It was the lesser of the two evils, Mother."
         "From half past seven till after five every day you mean to tell me you walked around in the park, because you wanted to make me think that you were still going to Rubicam's Business College?"
         "It wasn't as bad as it sounds. I went inside places to get warmed up."
         "Inside where?"
         "I went in the art museum and the bird houses at the Zoo. I visited the penguins every day. Sometimes I did without lunch and went to the movies. Lately, I've been spending most of my afternoons in the Jewel Box, that big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers."
         "You did all this to deceive me, just for deception?"
         "Mother, when you're disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus' mother in the museum!"

From Private Contentment by Reynolds Price.
A man and a woman stop beside a creek to rest and talk. Elements worth noting include the value in this context of clipped speech, the lack of tags due to both characters being clearly delineated (we know who is talking), the artful delivery of exposition (about the woman), the presence of tension between the two, and the role of the man as a foil character. In other words, he exists to manifest and reflect the qualities of the woman.
         "Let's don't stay here, please," she said.
         "Got homework to do?"
         "Latin, but that's not why."
         "Scared of Nazi bombers?"
         "I used to be. When the war first started, I thought every plane passing over at night had me in the bombsight. Now I doubt even Germans would want this place."
         "Seems nice to me."
         "It's better right down by the creek."
         "I could build a fire here—"
         "I said I couldn't stay here."
         "Lead the way, lady."
         "Don't make fun. This is where I was miserable."
         "What happened here?"
         She walks over and kneels beside the creek bank, dips her right hand into the water.      "Is it cold? he said."
         "No, warm for some reason. You can sit down here."
         "Thank you. I'm tired."
         "I knew you'd complain."
         "I just told a simple truth."
         "I used to love it here."
         "You said you were miserable."
         "That's why I loved it. I came here and talked to what couldn't talk back: rocks, leaves, lizards, frogs."
         "What would you say?"
         "I'd ask for things—a life like everybody else."

From Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
. Who are we to tell James Joyce how to write, but a few of the tags and adverbs would probably be deleted by contemporary editors; however, the presence of these does nothing to dilute the intensity of the drama. Rather than lecture on the socio-political problems of Ireland, Joyce places his characters at a Christmas dinner table and let's them go at it. Mr. Dedalus is the provocateur of the conflict that ramps up to violent frequency. As a bonus, we are treated to historical exposition concerning Ireland. Also, note the added narrative interjection to match the dinner mechanics, as well as each distinctive personality and the dynamics that bring them to life: Dante, Mr. Casey, and Mr. Dedalus. 
         "There's a tasty bit here we call the Pope's nose. If any lady or gentleman..."  He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork … "I'd better eat it myself because I'm not well in my health lately."
         He winked at Steven, and replacing the dish cover, began to eat.
         There was silence while he ate. Then he said:
         "Well now, the day kept up fine after all. There were plenty of strangers down too." Nobody spoke. He said again:
         "I think there were more strangers down than last Christmas." He said this then, receiving no reply, remarked bitterly: "Well, my Christmas dinner has been spoiled anyway."
         "There could be neither luck nor grace," Dante said, "in a house where there is no respect for the pastors of the church."
         Mr. Dedalus threw his knife and fork noisily on his plate.
         "Respect!" he shouted. "Is it for Billy with the lip or for the tub of guts up in Armagh. Respect!"
         "Princes of the Church," said Mr. Casey with slow scorn.
         "Lord Leitrim's coachmen, yes," said Mr. Dedalus.
         "They are the Lord's anointed, Dante said. "They are an honor to their country."
         "Tub of guts," said Mr. Dedalus coarsely. "He had a handsome face, mind you, in repose. You should see that fellow lapping up his bacon and cabbage on cold winter's day!"
         He twisted his features into a grimace of heavy bestiality and made a lapping noise with his lips.
         "Really, Simon," said Mrs. Dedalus, "you should not speak that way before Steven. It's not right."
         "Oh, he'll remember all this when he grows up!" exclaimed Dante hotly. "The language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own house."
         "Let him remember too," furiously cried Mr. Casey to her from across the table, "the language with which the priests and the priest's pawns broke Parnell's heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up!"
         "Sons of bitches!" cried Mr. Dedalus. "When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!"
         "They behaved rightly," cried Dante. "Honor to them!"


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