An exchange of words.
Whatever you call two people/characters trading witty repartee. Insert it here and start shaking.
Most writers I know hate writing dialogue. Some fear it like the monsters underneath their childhood beds. And others are in love with it. There is no middle ground. However, the consensus on what makes ‘good’ dialogue or ‘bad’ can be blurry. That, ladies and gentlemen, won’t do.
Simple criteria I (try) stick to:
- Gets your message across.
- Respects the voice of that character.
- Respects the language of the context.
- Not like REAL dialogue between humans.
1. The Message:
Fledgling writers or those who don’t have a firm grasp on their protagonist(s) struggle with message clarity. Your dialogue serves to communicate a variety of messages on different levels.
It should aim to:
- Communicate what at the surface your character is saying. (What is being said)
- Communicate the emotional state of your character as they are speaking. (How it is being said)
- Communicate the relationship between the characters that are talking to each other. (To who it is being said)
I know, right? How self-evident. But bear with me for a second. Do you begin a story with the plot or the protagonist?
If you begin with the plot, you’re a plotter or an engineering style writer. (You struggle with dialogue, don’t you?) However, if you begin with a character, you’re a panster or a discovery style writer. (You love writing dialogue, don’t you? You also suffer from floating-head-syndrome. It’s okay, there-there.)
You achieve effective communication by using the minimum amount of words to convey the maximum level of detail. This will vary depending on your writing style and character’s voice. The tool that facilitates that is the careful consideration and selection of vocabulary.
Some words have more weight than others. Saying someone is sad conveys that feeling. However, if you wanted to be concise, you could use morose, grieving, forlorn, bereaved, etc. Choosing the right words, that impart layers of information allows you to convey your character’s message to your readers. Go to thesaurus.com and become a word nerd. The more tools/words at your disposal, the more succinct you become at picking out the right one. This makes your job of clarifying your character’s message and translating it to your readers easier. Your goal should always be efficiency. Style and flourish should come after the mastery of the basics.
2. The Voice:
Some characters are wordy, go off on tangents and don’t have a focused line of dialogue. Others are laconic, stoic, and use few words, if at all. Knowledge of your character is imperative for the effective use of voice.
Let’s go on a mild tangent that’ll make this clear.
When you go to a restaurant, and you ask for a ‘couple of eggs,’ what does ‘couple’ stand for?
Go on. This isn’t a trick question.
Does it mean two eggs or multiple eggs?
If you grew up in an Anglophone speaking country, province, or state, then I suspect it means two for you.
But if you grew up where I did, a bilingual town where not everyone spoke English, not everyone has the firmest grasp of it. A couple could mean multiple, too. It’s a context-specific word choice. One that tells me, depending on its use, that this person is not a primarily English-speaking person. Or at the very least (accent level hints at this too) English wasn’t their first language.
How does this tangent help you?
Who’s your character? What was their first language, and where were they raised? What cultural background did that upbringing grant them? Do they come from a religious background? If so, which one? What were the traditions they grew up with? How about school, did they like it? Did they have a favorite subject? Why was it their favorite? Was there a subject they hated? What about that subject that made them hate it?
The who, what, when, where, and why of your character may seem like a daunting task to flesh out. But let’s be clear—knowing these facets of your characters (yes, all of them) is crucial. It allows you to have a firm idea of what words they would choose in varying circumstances.
For example, I have a laconic protagonist. She does not speak often, and she refuses to swear when she does. What impact would it have on my readers if, after some adventures with her, she drops an f-bomb?
Word choice matters for effectiveness. But it informs on the emotional status of the person speaking, too. And trust me when I say, your readers want that.
3. The Context:
This may make more sense for those of you who are in the workforce. Even more so, if you have changed industries at some point. But for those of you who might be students, tell me, what’s the difference between the people studying science vs. political science, or arts?
Every discipline or profession has its own language. The more specific or niche the work/subject is, the more succinct its language will be. If your character is a medical professional, he understands anatomy, physiology, pathology, etc. If your character is a banker, he understands the laws of economics and finance, contracts, and internal policies. That character also works in an office and has a developed sense of emotional intelligence. He will need it to survive and climb the corporate ladder.
Your character’s profession is a big part of his or her or their lives. Most people in the North-West region of the world spend an average of 40-80 hours at work. As a career-centric individual, I can tell you; I see my colleagues more than my family. It’s a huge part of my life, and it’s a hard part to turn off. Work-related acronyms slip out all the time. I feel terrible for explaining it because I don’t want to come off pretentious.
That is my context. It informs my word choices when I talk and the jokes I make with people (I’m a dork and make IT jokes all the time; it doesn’t embarrass me). The more layered a context you have, the richer your character is.
I have another protagonist. He began his career in the academics of languages. He became a master of over 12 different languages before they drafted him into the army. So now, I have someone who’s smart in one way, having to learn how to work in a different environment. He ends up training and becoming a field medic for this military. That is three layers of context. I must learn to communicate those layers when I write through his perspective. Does it make writing him hard? Yes, without fail. Does it make him interesting? He’s a favorite of my constant readers.
Not all characters need or should have that many layers. It makes sense for an older character to be more experienced than a younger one. They’ve had the time to develop themselves. Chose what’s appropriate for your characters and roll with it!
4. The Reality:
There’s a common (and good) advice given to all writers about dialogue; “Get out there and eavesdrop!”.
And so, you go to malls, or cafes, or other sites where you’re exposed to crowds of people talking, and you listen. Real-life conversation isn’t riveting when you don’t know the context or emotional stakes between speakers. There are lots of tangents, run-on sentences, and trail offs—are those things that help you with dialogue?
No, no, they’re not.
So, you’re met with a contradiction (one of many in life) here. To satisfy the first criteria (the message), you would have to fudge the realism (the reality) of your dialogue.
This is another area where knowing your character and their voice is imperative. Some characters should sway more towards the message than reality. Their interactions move the plot forward more than other characters, so with them, every word counts. Other characters serve the emotional beats of your story, grounding your readers, offering a connection. Those characters should have a realistic sounding dialogue. It’s a contradiction that must need a case-by-case evaluation. It makes writing complex, but it’s that complexity that makes it so good.
So, let’s recap.
For good dialogue, I focus on four criteria: the message, the voice, the context, and reality.
The message is what you communicate as the characters speak. Their words, their intentions, their feelings towards each other, and the situation they are discussing. The voice is the essence of my characters, who they are, where they grew up, how, and with whom. This informs the reader background information on the characters. The easiest way to do this is through careful word choice. The more specific and niche the words are, the more it demonstrates the character’s specializations. The context speaks about where the characters are physically. Also, in their lives, and much like with the voice, vocabulary is vital here too. The reality/realism of the character will depend on the role they play within the plot/narrative. If they’re there to be an emotional anchor, then pepper more realism into their dialogue. Emotional moments demand more realism to help ground the emotional beats. Does the character drive the plot? Have more emphasis on the message.
Good luck and write on.