Hi everyone! Today I wanted to talk about quick ways to improve character dialogue. I’ll keep this short and sweet so you can be well on your way to editing that manuscript.
Understand the purpose of the scene.
Each scene should change the direction of the story, reveal something new about a character or advance the character on their arc in some way. In journalism, we have the inverted pyramid where the most important information is revealed first while the less important details come last. In movies or novels, the structure looks similar while the application is flipped. Open your scene generally and increase the intensity of the interactions between characters until the scene boils down to a point.
Think about this scene in relation to your story, its theme, how the characters are feeling and what impossible choices they need to make to continue on their arc. What are you trying to show? To speak generally: Maybe a character is avoiding a line of questioning about something that upsets him by lashing out. This can create some interesting tension if the second character misunderstands his motivation. The second character then makes choices which forces the first character to either come clean or keep digging their hole. What begins as general banter should boil down to a point, the final lines, which reveal the purpose of the scene. This follows the general scene structure found in movies.
Understand each character’s goals and motivation
Every character has something they want and something standing in the way of what they want, usually something about themselves they need to change to get there. The point of the character arc is to show how they change or fail to change to achieve or fail to achieve their goal. In individual scenes, each character will continue to differ with their goals–how they want the conversation to play out, what they want to talk about, what’s on their mind, what lies they believe, etc.
You can almost have two conversations going on at once as each character steers the topics back to themselves and what’s on their own mind. We do this constantly in the real world. (No one cares about the answer to “How are you?” if we are using it as a tool to engage someone to talk about ourselves.) This is a cool way to reveal a character’s traits and have a little realistic miscommunication.
Realism, but not boring realism
“Hello, how are you today?”
“I am well, how are you?”
“I am fine.”
“Lovely weather we’re having.”
“Oh yes it is. My name is blah blah blah by the way and here is my entire backstory in a wall of text.”
“Here is my entire backstory also in a wall of text.”
Abandon the realism of general pleasantries and begin your conversation about 25 percent of the way through, when the juicy bits begin. However, keep in mind how real people speak. Observe conversations in the real world. To emulate this in writing you would need to place chunks of dialogue directly on top of each other. People constantly interrupt and go off topic and use far too many words to explain a simple concept.
People who are comfortable with each other speak in shorthand. Their conversations move rapidly. They don’t have to explain (as in the next example), “I got this food from the cafeteria inside the hospital where I work researching neurology four days a week,” because their partner would already know this. A small bit of dialogue reveals a lot about the dynamic between characters. Don’t treat the talking bits solely as info dumps for your audience.
“Where’d you get this?” she asked.
“Oh, the place downstairs, you know,” Rigel shrugged.
“It good?” Mira asked.
“What, the pasta or the work?” asked Rigel.
“Both good I suppose,” Rigel said.
“Taught the students to use resin today,” Mira said.
“No olives, I checked,” Rigel said.
“Oil paintings,” Mira said. She wiped her eyes.
“Hmm?” Rigel made a noncommittal noise and walked past her to the kitchen.
Mira lingered by the stairs. She didn’t raise her voice when she spoke.
“I really feel like I’m getting through to them,” she said.
Showing, not telling emotion
“I am sad today,” he said. He looked sad. She also thought he looked sad.
“I am angry today and I do not care that you are sad. I wish to fight with you!” she said. She was angry.
Instead of saying someone is sad, show how they are sad or happy or angry through the manipulation of the dialogue pacing, word choice and how articulate their sentences are. Very emotional people do not speak elegantly. The more angry someone gets, the harsher their word choice becomes, the shorter their sentences become and the more back-and-forth the character dialogue is.
These are nonsense sentences, but consider how they sound to the ear:
These elegant synopsizes of the sonorous symposium engage pleasantries in communication.
Harsh bricks talk trash!
Which do you think was said by an angry character? If you saw these in a random sample of dialogue, how might you think that character feels? This effect is easier to achieve in a larger sample of dialogue because you’ll also have the benefit of the quick back-and-forth characters engage in when fighting.
Watch the video to learn more.
I really get into it in the video, so if you have 15 minutes I encourage you to listen. I also share examples of my own writing!
Hope your writing is flowing smoothly,