Five Steps for Better Dialogue

CLAY STAFFORD

Characters connect to each other (and we connect to them) through their dialogue. So what makes for good dialogue? Here’s a little checklist.

It sounds real when read aloud.

Screenwriters know when they write dialogue that someone is going to be saying it, and it needs to come across in a way that someone would actually say it. Learn from them.

It is visceral, meaning there is emotion behind it.

None of this casual, “how are you today”, but more of “how could you possibly do this to me?” Put the characters in situations where there is conflict and you have dialogue that hits the reader hard.

It is to the point.

Whether you are writing a short story or a full-length saga, you’ve still only got a limited number of words or page lines in order tell your story. Make good use of each word. It’s easy to have characters fall into what we have in real life: casual dialogue. In a well-worked manuscript, there is nothing casual. It should be a dogfight – from love to work to hate – with each character wanting something that the other character cannot (or better yet: will not) provide. Conflict is key. What does each character want, or want to convey? We should hear that in their words.

It provides information in chunks.

Need to get some info across? Do it in small chunks. If you put it into one big paragraph, it starts reading like a doctoral dissertation or exposition and your reader is going to glaze over. Divide it up in the dialogue in the scene or, better yet, divide the backstory information up into points that can be dispersed to some degree through the story. And make sure the dialogue emerges organically from the scene; you don’t want a character to suddenly start talking about his childhood without any motivation or context.

It is unique for each character.

This doesn’t mean that it has to be drastically different. None of us are drastically different. But some people, when they talk, use more adverbs or adjectives than others. Some talk in spurts while others are fluid. Some use long sentences; some clipped. Some speak as though everything they say is a fact; other’s will say “I think…” Each character has a voice. Use your skills to find it. There is an old-time Hollywood exercise that goes like this: when you read a line, if you can’t tell who is talking without looking at the attribution, then you know that it is not as polished as it could be.

Use this checklist on the scene you are working on right now and see if it doesn’t make a difference.