On Dialogue, by Patrick Burdine
I’m imprinting my thoughts into your brain, and it’s kind of cool and kind of creepy. Stephen King once wrote that that writing is telepathy* which means I am planting these thoughts directly in your mind, which is pretty efficient. However, most of the time we want to communicate our thoughts we need to use our mouths and our listeners ears. The same goes for the characters in our stories (unless the characters are deaf in which case manual communication is still written in similar fashion and the same for whatever corresponding organs exist for such purposes in the universe created by the author.) We usually call this dialogue (yeah, there is monologue and soliloquy, but let’s just go with dialogue here).
Dialogue is awesome, it’s my favorite thing to write. It is my favorite thing to listen to in movies, and is quite often the most memorable part of many books and movies. Take a moment, think about your favorite movie, think about your favorite part of that movie. Close your eyes now and imagine it. Odds are, it included a line or two of dialogue. Those words inspired you or broke your heart. Maybe they brought a smile to your lips or made you catch your breath. For me, by the way, what popped into my mind this time was from the movie “The Crow”, the part where the titular character had the junkie single mom in the bathroom and forced her to look into the mirror and said “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children.” as the junk flowed from her veins. Any other day it could have been Pug saying “Tremble and despair, for I am power!” - Magician by Raymond E. Feist (I read the book once when it first came out and never forgot that line.) “…it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.”- American Beauty. Some of these lines are just so perfect that they enter the vernacular and take on life of their own.
And writing dialogue should be easy, right? I mean, we talk all day every day.
It’s not. In fact, good dialogue is one of the harder skills to master and one of the things that turns people off quickest when they are watching a movie or reading a book. How often does a character’s voice seem false? Maybe all of the characters sound the same? I’m going to blather on a bit about dialogue here because I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and hopefully it will help me sharpen up my own dialogue and help give you a greater insight into why you like some dialogue and why some is just bad (and I’ve been guilty of writing it too!)
Dialogue isn’t actually how people talk. It’s how they wished they talked. Actual conversations contain lots of filler words, repeated phrases and words, and general junk. It sounds natural in the moment, but when looking for an economy of space and trying to communicate an idea in the best possible way most of the “uhs”, “ums”, and “yeahs” are just going to break the flow. Sure they’re natural, but they’re unnecessary and distracting. Just think of the number of times you’ve thought of the perfect thing to say days or weeks after a conversation. A writer has rewrites, so they should be doing that! Many writers skim over conversation in rewrite thinking its natural (or hoping an editor’ll catch it) and that is a mistake. Compare “I’m king of the world” to what we’d probably say which is “holy crap this is awesome!” The second is how people talk, the first is how we wish we talked.
The catch is that it still has to sound like people talk. Many people are writers because we like a bit(lot) of solitude. We like spending time with our imaginary friends. They all talk just like we want them to, and hit all of the inflections just right. Sometimes we go a bit cenobite (the historical type, not the spiky pain demon type) and forget to be social. Or it causes us real anxiety. It’s not personal, it just happens. If you’re an anxious type of writers, I highly recommend hanging out at a coffee shop with earbuds in but not plugged in to anything. Nobody will bug you and you get to drop some eaves, if you catch my drift. Sit near the line at Starbucks and listen to snippets of conversations to get a flow of how different people talk. Their cadences, the lengths of sentences, the slang groups use, etc. Writers are vampires, we should be drinking in the life from everything around us to stay vital and beautiful and powerful.
Show don’t tell by having your character tell! What I mean here, is use dialogue to allow your character to reveal who they are and progress the plot simultaneously. Dialogue is also fantastic place to really work on subtext. Sarcasm, insinuation, allusion, implication, or some kind of double meaning. Try to let the reader make their own assumptions and them reveal them to either be true (or not!) Thriller writers are real pros at this and a good way to bring that into your own work is to watch something outside of the genre you are writing and then try and bring some of those tools back into it.
All of this being said, dialogue isn’t (usually) the story. It’s just one more part that makes the entire experience completely immersive. It’s the difference between visiting a world and reading a book.
So tell me, what are some of your favorite lines from a book or movie (or play)?
*On Writing. I paraphrased, btw. You should read this if you haven’t. Seriously, it’s amazing. Part autobiography, part writer’s toolbox, part book of incantations, part lodestone-it’s one of my go to books any time I need motivation.
Patrick Burdine has written several horror short stories and most recently released the novella, “The Monitor.” He has written for film including the movie, “Slaughterhouse Phi: Death Sisters.” He also writes science fiction and is a Shell Case Short winner for his work, “The Bone Carver.” He is currently working with Curiosity Quills author Aiden James on the next installment in the “Dying of the Dark Vampires” series. He resides in Los Angeles, California with his wife and three daughters.