…Does it light up the story like an imagination on fire?
…Does it build momentum?
…Does it raise curiosity, recapturing your reader with every exchange?
…Do your characters’ personalities show in every breath?
…Does it sound the slightest bit unnatural or forced?
I would contend that dialogue is one area where writers should focus. MASSIVELY. Work on it until it until it’s your strength. Play with it until it’s your joy.
When dialogue suffers, the whole story droops. Poor dialogue dilutes the characters, slows the pace, and often, it tattles on the plot.
Or abandons it in a dark alley a few streets over.
It’s no wonder many readers jump ship at the first sign of monochrome chitchat.
In contrast, brilliant dialogue captures the reader and doesn’t let go.
You know that and you want to make it your own. To have conversations that no other writer could have written and no other characters could have had.
Stick around and I’ll show you the ropes of this strange alchemy:
- using every single line to feed the larger story,
- learning to intrigue the reader with every exchange,
- and surprising the reader in new ways.
With knowledge and practice, you’ll soon be consistently concocting your own dialogue-y brilliance, you dialoguist, you.
Put it to use: Before we get started, find an exchange you’d like to improve. We’ll be working on it throughout the article.
Let’s get brewing.
The Infusion of Purpose: Feed Your Story
“You can write the sharpest, most glittering, wisest, poetic, hilariously dazzling dialogue, but if that dialogue doesn’t do its true work and open the dramatic world underneath, it’s dead on arrival.” John Guare
Our first potion cuts to the heart of what you’re trying to do with each line.
Strong dialogue depends on every line pulling its weight. Because GREAT dialogue serves the story.
You just need to know what you’re trying to accomplish. And every line should seek to accomplish at least one of three story-serving goals:
- Present the circumstances
- Reveal your characters
- Advance the plot
Okay, that might be helpful, but we can do better. Let’s expand them to get the ideas flowing…
Present the Circumstances
- Set up the problem
- Evoke the characters’ “normal world“
- Pique curiosity to let narration do a quick fill-in
- Mention assets for solving the problem
- Imply life surrounding your scenes
- Suggest setting details
Mistake to avoid: Infodumps. Or telling each other what they already know.
- Show what the characters are thinking (Opinions!)
- Show how the characters think (Thought processes!)
- Suggest conversational styles and skills
- Reveal relationship dynamics
- Bring in backstory
- Imply emotions and attitudes
- Divulge goals, passions, and dreams
It’s best if “characterization-only” lines are used at the edges of your scenes. Beginning and end.
Advance the Plot
- Establish the goal
- Set stakes
- Unveil motives
- Choose an approach and show why
- Show progress toward the goal
- Spring a setback
- Expose obstacles
- Escalate the stakes
- Make the reader feel the motivation
- Create suspense
- Hint at agendas
- Set up turning points with emotion and new perspectives
- Reaffirm any of the above information at the right time
Pro Tip: Try to accomplish multiple aims with every sentence, presenting the circumstances, revealing character, and most importantly, advancing the plot. Because…
Dialogue is never filler.
Repeat after me.
Dialogue is NEVER filler.
“The truth is that a tight and snappy dialogue exchange can often do the work of several pages of prose.” Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction
Don’t squander that potency. Use it. (Keep reading, I’ll show you how.)
Great dialogue cannot be anything less than story-fuel. If it doesn’t serve the story, it isn’t great.
Put it to use: Take three minutes and check every line and make sure it’s doing something on the list. Mark lines that need purpose.
We’ll work on infusing them with purpose in a bit. Promise.
The Potion of Enchantment: Intrigue Your Reader
Our second potion addresses how to go about accomplishing the goals in the last section in a way that’s going to glue your reader to the page, too intrigued to put it down.
To that end, we have seven ingredients. (Please note that conflict is included in the basics I mentioned at the beginning. Do not forget it.)
The solvent of this potion is curiosity.
What keeps a reader reading like no tomorrow is curiosity. It’s always curiosity.
We pull questions from our readers without them consciously realizing it. And if that sounds like magic, consider how often you mentally voice the questions “what happens next?” or “how will they do THAT?” when you’re reading a page turner.
Or are you too furiously immersed in the story to consciously think those things?
But curiosity goes further than plot-based questions. It also wonders about the characters and how they think and what they’ll say and how they’ll react.
You can use “conversational bait” to trigger questions…
The trick is to give them the opportunity to become curious.
Tease. Hint. Say something that invites the question.
Make them aware that there’s a gap between what they know and what they want to know.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
You can use the bait—otherwise known as open loops or curiosity gaps—in more ways than a conversationalist can. Your characters can use it to get other characters interested in a conversation, OR…
The characters can already know. So they obliquely reference whatever-it-is.
…And organically create curiosity and anticipation in the reader. While also not falling into the “as you know, Bob” trap. (Pretty spiffy, huh?)
Put it to use: At least once in your exchange, do you hint that there’s knowledge missing from your reader’s mental compendium on your story or characters without filling it in immediately? (It’s okay if it’s small.)
Keep a steady flow of these open loops and fulfill their curiosity by trickles and drops. Answer some immediately. Taunt them with others (the really big satisfying ones), building anticipation for the reveal.
Do that, and you’ve got a nice base of curiosity to stir everything else into.
Our second ingredient is the antidote for curiosity-killing boredom.
You are going to search out the thing that makes this conversation clever. If it’s boring to write, it doesn’t pass muster. From now on, you fail it before it ever hits the page. (Even if it’s just marked for revision.)
So how do you go about finding the clever bit?
You can approach it from a couple angles. You can look for what’s already interesting—even the tiniest spark—and play with it, or you can look for ways to fundamentally shift the conversation to introduce interesting elements.
…You can use the techniques listed in the “Elixir of the Unexpected” section, or you can exercise the Magic Ingredient listed later in this section. (Nope, not telling. …Er, not just yet.)
To shift the conversation, look for the concepts behind it and how they can be interpreted differently.
- What themes intersect and parry?
- What opinions and agendas could you bestow?
- Is there a related but not-quite-the-same subject that could be introduced and complicate things?
- What emotion comes to the surface?
- What assumptions and conclusions shape the conversation?
- What’s the outcome?
- Is there one of the “line purposes” from the last section that could be delivered in spectacular fashion?
- What type of conversation would you call it? What if it had a different dynamic?
Latch onto the most interesting idea of the conversation that you can find. Not what you think should be interesting, but what actually gets your gears turning.
“If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.” Rachel Aaron
Put it to use: Let’s revisit your exchange. What makes this conversation special? Fun? Diabolical?
It could be an extra layer of conflict. Or a moving shift in mood.
A secret. A twist.
A shot of humor, change of subject, or unexpected opinion.
…Focus on and highlight whatever is interesting, seasoning your writing well.
*throws glitter everywhere*
And now you have a new mental image for the term “sparking dialogue.” You’re welcome.
Our third ingredient is characterization. Personality. Soul.
Consider this: if your book was translated into another language and lost all your careful word choice and dialect and syntax, would your characters’ voices still be distinct?
Your characters’ perspectives, worldviews, and agendas will color everything they say.
Put it to use: Those lines you marked earlier? Let ’em have it.
Look for objective observations. Would this person really be giving an objective opinion? If yes, what can you do to change that?
What morals or priorities might shape a character’s opinion into something more provocative or entertaining? What statement could suddenly have an opinion attached?
What outcome is each character trying to accomplish? Persuasion? Compromise? Hiding a secret? Finding a secret? Clarifying logic? Clarifying emotion? Working toward a larger goal?
How could you make those things more obvious in the lines you marked?
We’ll discuss more ways to use your character’s traits and personality in the Magic Ingredient section, and there’s a full article on Voice coming down the pipeline.
Our fourth ingredient is pace control.
“Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches.” Michael Ferris
Pace is momentum. And just as in narration, it’s your job to keep it moving.
Sometimes you’ll need to soup it up. Sometimes you’ll need to restrain it, but it’s your job to preserve the impulse behind it by bolting down the bits that make us curious and sparkle your enthusiasm, and scraping away everything that threatens to overshadow them.
Also called tightening.
Your pace should always be changing, speeding up and slowing down to keep any particular tempo from becoming monotonous.
Now, let me say, it’s possible to build momentum in a speech. Just not easy.
Rhythm affects pace, particularly when it plods.
…Be wary of writing exactly as you speak. In real speech, changing pitch, volume and tempo can disguise a monotonous rhythm, where in writing it’s utterly exposed. So vary rhythm and word choice.
And try running your dialogue through a text-to-speech program instead of reading it out loud.
Put it to use: Check every line to make sure it isn’t slowing the pace unnecessarily. Check every line to make sure it isn’t speeding past something interesting.
Our fifth ingredient is a large dose of raw microtension.
A close cousin to the curiosity, and brother to conflict, microtension has a subtler bouquet.
To paraphrase Donald Maass in Writing 21st Century Fiction, microtension is the evidence, however faint, of conflicting emotions showing there’s real uncertainty about the next few seconds. It’s the tension simmering under the surface.
You need the small questions that get answered a few lines later or on the next page as much as you need the big plot questions.
These smaller questions are raised through implication and foreshadowing and dissonance rather than more overt conversational baiting. This is the kind of curiosity that the reader is least likely to notice, but it’s the kind that needs to be constantly present.
It’s the thing whose absence creates “the parts readers skip.”
It’s the subtle friction between characters. It’s the word choice that sets us on edge. It’s the hint that something is out of balance, that it’s dynamic.
Microtension lets “slow parts” without high conflict stay taut and engaging. Even high conflict passages need microtension to give them zap.
Put it to use: Read your exchange. Does it make you feel edgy or breathless or impatient or keen to know more, all while fully immersed?
If not, add some conflicting emotions. Show. Imply. Use emotional cues.
Our sixth ingredient is punch. No, not the stuff you drink at a graduation party, though that is tasty.
We’re looking for emotional punch, an element so powerful it’s one of the six factors of unforgettable characters.
We remember what your characters make us feel.
Dig into your own feelings and be utterly authentic, leaving no (scene-and-character appropriate) sentiment unexplored, even if it feels too raw.
Put it to use: Check for a major shift of emotion in the scene. And a slight shift every few lines or so.
Strong scenes are emotionally dynamic.
And they reveal a more complex inner world. Donald Maass suggests asking what else the character feels, then asking what else again, and using the least obvious emotion.
“Obvious character emotions shut readers off. They’re too common. Their effect is dull.” Donald Maass
This is emotional depth. Use it to slip past your readers’ defenses and steep them in potent “feels.”
Don’t let it get watered down.
Prune. Transform a nagging you-should-feel-this-dagnabbit into a swift punch they can’t avoid.
Pro Tip: Use more than dialogue to paint the emotion. Throw in body language, action, and emotional sensation. Layer it to create the experience for us.
And use decisive action to end an exchange that’s threatening to get watery.
The Magic Ingredient
…This ingredient is invisible until you start really thinking about it. So don’t feel bad if you aren’t using it yet.
You’re about to start.
The magic ingredient of
brilliant dialogue our potion is SUBTEXT.
Glossary Moment: Subtext is what’s implied in a passage or line. It can be anything from attitude to theme to hidden agendas.
Anything that isn’t stated outright is subtext.
To readers, subtext is a puzzle, a mystery to interpret and piece together. Make them work for it in all the right ways, and you’ll draw them deeper.
A bit of reader psychology: we believe most vehemently the conclusions we draw, not the ones handed to us with a pretty little bow.
“I think that people need two kinds of fulfillment — one in which you give and one in which you hold back.” Joss Wheadon
In order to create that puzzle for them, you need layers of subtext. Multiple.
Those layers are what allow us to say and imply and insinuate and show multiple things at once, meeting multiple story-serving goals with a single line.
Multiple, multiple, multiple. Got it?
…Some layers need to be easily understood. Others should be more subtle.
Choosing which layers are presented which way is up to you.
So what layers are we talking about?
- Deep Desires
- Intercharacter Relationship Dynamics
- Thought Processes
- Attitudes and Emotions
All of these things are at their best when delivered in subtext.
If you’d like to learn more about this indispensable technique, pledge just $2 on Patreon and you’ll get first (and deeper) access to Writingeekery articles as they come out.
…The Subtext article is in the queue right after Voice. And in the meantime, there’s a list of questions to help you get the best subtext out of your cast’s relationships.
Our last concoction is the perfect complement to the first two, amplifying the benefits from both…
The Elixir of the Unexpected: How to Surprise Them
Perhaps the worst crime of lackluster dialogue is its predictability.
Have you ever read a passage that followed the subject right down the logical path of conversation, and bored you to death?
That’s where most writers go wrong.
You see, the subject is secondary. The true focal point of dialogue is the character, not what they happen to be talking about.
It’s all too easy to fall into the subject-focused trap of having the characters stay on topic, listening to each other, and never meaning anything beyond what they say. BUT when we focus on the characters instead, suddenly there’s a world of stuff going on under the surface.
Hey, look. Subtext.
The subtext can reveal so much more about the characters and situation than an infodump. Nobody listens to infodumps.
But we love to tune into subtext.
When we’re piecing things together, it’s not all at the surface, not staring us blankly in the face. Subtext by its very nature is unpredictable.
Another technique to keep your reader on their toes is to give your characters different assumptions.
Differing assumptions create an opening for misunderstandings, and better yet, talking past each other. When this happens, you move into a realm of non-linear, DELICIOUSLY UNPREDICTABLE dialogue. (Excuse me while I squeal.)
The point is to shake things up. When you follow the expected path of conversation, our eyes glaze over. When you surprise us, you delight us. The dialogue is fresh.
Breaking from the expected is #2 in the list of factors to create unforgettable characters for good reason.
So, what other techniques can we use to break up the linear flow of boring conversation?
Ideas for Playing with Your Dialogue (Encouraged, unlike playing with your food.)
Everything here can be used to organically surprise your reader and accomplish any of the line purposes from the first section. I’ll identify other effects easily achieved with each.
Though you can always make them do more and use them to spark your enthusiasm.
Put it to use: Go over every line, especially the marked ones, and see if you can’t use these techniques to accomplish more (ahem, first section) through subtext.
And if you’d like the printable worksheets for each section, support me on Patreon for as little as $2.
Interpret the subject two different ways.
Maybe it opens their eyes, or starts a fight, or causes antics with misinterpretation.
Effect: subtext, character thought processes, microtension.
Have one misinterpret the other’s words.
Don’t just use this as a gimmick. What fundamental assumptions shape the interpretation? What does it reveal about the character?
Effect: characterization, subtext, microtension.
Say the opposite of what they’re thinking.
This can be obvious sarcasm or a lie to cover feelings, or a way to skirt the real issue and avoid confrontation.
Effect: subtext, microtension.
Sidestep the issue.
Dodge it. Deflect. Redirect. Reframe. Make the spat (or chat) about something else: emotion, logic, the right to bring it up.
Reply to a question with a question. Transition to a related subject. Or put them on the defensive.
Effect: subtext, tension, a character’s sensitive subjects or backstory, curiosity.
Load the silence.
Let your character respond without words, whether he avoids the subject or uses body language and action to make his opinion clear.
Effect: subtext, characterization.
Maybe it’s with their own thoughts or with something else happening, but get them not-quite-listening. This feeds other techniques like misinterpretation and non sequiturs. So only in rare cases should your characters pay full attentive attention.
Effect: pace control, microtension, subtext, characterization.
Whether it’s obvious irony, quiet humility, or the downplaying of a threat, understatement is an interesting device. Just don’t overuse it.
Effect: subtext, characterization.
This one isn’t about how your characters interact, it’s about ending your lines with the most interesting thoughts and powerful words. Because what comes at the end makes the biggest impression.
What does it say about the person interrupting? What does it leave unsaid on the original topic? This doesn’t have to be used exclusively to skip the boring bits.
Effect: curiosity, characterization, subtext.
Juxtapose attitudes, communication styles, opinions, or frames of reference. Or all of the above.
Effect: micro-concept, curiosity, characterization.
Use confrontation to deliver information.
You know those times when you throw things in someone’s face or bring up old wounds? Yep, that.
Effect: tension, organic curiosity fulfillment, subtext.
When one character opens up about something emotional, there’s an opportunity for the other to open up and the pair to become closer.
Effect: punch, characterization.
Embrace asymmetry, not reciprocation.
Not always appropriate, but sometimes you need to have one character open up and the other close down. This creates a definite tension and possibly a strain on the relationship.
Effect: microtension, subtext, characterization.
Frame a statement.
The framing effect means that how an idea is presented – even if it appears to be objective – can affect your character’s interpretation and opinion of it, or your audience’s even if the character sees past it.
Effect: shifting the conversation, directing the story.
Ask a leading question.
Unlike framing, leading questions never look objective. How will your character react?
Effect: characterization, tension.
Refer back to something already mentioned, whether it was in dialogue or narration, to keep things grounded in past events or exchanges. Better yet if something has changed and gives it new perspective.
Effect: subtext, pace control, characterization, grounding.
Don’t let them just agree.
Whether they disagree, change the subject, or take it to a profound new level, make them add something to the conversation. This is great for flipping small talk on its head and steering it to deeper water.
Effect: pace control, curiosity, subtext, characterization, microtension.
Make the subject into a metaphor for a theme or situation. It can be something the reader already knows about, or it can be candy for a second readthrough.
Leapfrog the obvious conclusion.
Let your character’s unique thought process and frame of reference take the wheel. What would cause them to come to that conclusion? Are they three steps ahead, or somewhere off in Angora?
Effect: characterization, curiosity, subtext, punch.
What can your character purposefully imply about the situation, setting, or characters? Does the other character get it?
Effect: subtext, characterization.
Our characters aren’t always going to be looking for a real conversation. Many times, they’ll be so intent on hiding something – be it emotion or insecurity or secret – that they won’t be inviting response, they’ll be countering it.
Effect: subtext, characterization, pace control, punch.
Juggle multiple thought threads.
Maybe each character is on their own conversation track, basically ignoring the rest. Maybe they are at odds and trying to press their own agendas. Maybe both are keeping up with all threads.
Effect: pace control, characterization, microtension.
Any of these techniques can be spun a thousand ways. Every character, every situation will press its own flavor onto the technique given the chance.
…And anything that decreases conflict and tension is to be used sparingly.
Put it to use: How would you describe your exchange now? Tell us about it. Show us the before and after.
What other techniques could we use to surprise our readers? Comment!
Why YOU Are Going to Be Someone’s Favorite Author
Hit-you-over-the-head-brilliant dialogue has a lot going on under the hood. Even a simple conversation is loaded with more meaning and tension than we realize as we’re reading it.
…The best dialogue isn’t a meeting of fictional minds. It’s a near-miss of worldviews and thought patterns. It’s the art of unpredictable volleys in a battle of agendas and not-quite-listening.
Dialogue isn’t conversation, and it’s rarely communication, at least if you’re thinking like a great dialoguist.
…It’s the miscommunication that makes things interesting.
And it’s what ISN’T said that keeps us guessing.
AND YOU HAVE THE ADVANTAGE.
You don’t have to do it in one pass. You have access to resources like this article to make things easier.
Its time to buck the curse of humdrum exchanges. Make your dialogue shine.
And never let it turn into filler.
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I love hearing what you have to add and questions relating to what we’ve covered.
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Set a timer and give yourself one minute to sum up three things you learned (without looking). This is a learning technique that will help you absorb, remember, and use it in the future. Not bad for one little minute.