(Part One is here! This is an answer to an ask! It’s just a wordy answer!)
Okay so disclaimer, I read a LOT of plays as a kid and a teen, probably more than I read regular books, and I think that had a huge impact on how I write dialogue, because in a play everything that’s going on has to be communicated either visually through body language or through spoken words.
In books and stories and fanfic, you can get away with implying more than characters are actually saying, and I really love writing that does this well. There are some amazing passages in Judy Blume’s Forever where two teens have whole pages of one-word conversations each that more or less are the 70’s equivalent of “Okay?” “Okay.” And it’s great. But I’m not necessarily the best at writing that kind of dialogue, probably because I imprinted on all these meaty dialogue-heavy stage plays, so I’m just gonna talk about what I know!
- I think dialogue is a layer of obfuscation that masks the heart of the conflict that sits between any two people.
- I think there’s always conflict or at least tension at the center of every conversation two people have with each other—even if that tension is just a desire to be heard or a frustration at not being heard.
- I think the longer two people talk to each other the more likely they are to strip away all of the social layers that mask that conflict and get to the root source of their individual conflicts, fears, or frustrations.
- So with all of that in mind, before you go to write any piece of dialogue, think about how the characters in the scene are feeling when the scene starts. If someone’s feeling tense and frustrated, they’re probably not going to want to join in on a round of witty banter. On the other hand, if the person they’re with is prone to insecurity, and the witty banter goes over like a lead balloon, how will that make them feel? (Hi, hello, I write Arthur/Eames fic, can you tell? lolol.)
Here’s a simple example from a fic where Character B tends to use deadpan responses to mask a lot of general anxiety and nervousness. The dialogue between him and Character A, who is bubbly and energetic and motivated, is a study in contrasts—she bubbles over and he reins her in with flat one-liners. It’s a push/pull, give/take kind of interaction, but it also masks a basic conflict between their two personalities, in that he’s reluctant to move forward and she’s rearing to go. Here’s the dialogue without any tags or description.
“Ohmigosh, really? Oh, my god, you have to let me do the website. And the tumblr. Oh, my god, you’re going to have the best photos. It’s going to be great! You’re turning into a businessman, look at you!”
“I know a guy who can JQuery a whole site for us in like thirty minutes. Just let me handle it.”
“Why don’t I let you handle it.”
“Yes! You know you’re going to have to redo all these flyers, right?”
“I just got those flyers.”
“Maybe we should have a meeting with the ad agency to talk about what the url will be and what kind of social network feeds you’re going to need, so you don’t have to keep reprinting things.”
“Why not? You’re already wearing a suit.”
Even though this dialogue is ostensibly about banal crap no one cares about, there’s a lot going on!
- If you hinge your dialogue around character dynamics, and all the unspoken things that are happening to the characters, it will (I believe) imbue every conversation with meaning and layers and nuance. So, above, what’s really going on is that Character B is being reluctantly dragged along towards the 21st century and ugh responsibilities and shit, and isn’t really happy about it.
- I know I’ve said this already, but seriously, read Audition! it’s got so many great tips about dialogue by virtue of talking about character moods and looking for opposition in every scene, and when you think about that it makes your dialogue that much richer!
Okay more to come!