We’ve got to talk about two keys to great dialogue. There isn’t just one key. As Francine Prose says, “One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.”
Prose goes on to give this over-the-top example of horrible dialogue:
“Nice to see you again, Sally.”
“What have you been doing, Joe?”
“Well, Sally, as you know, I’m an insurance investigator. I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I’m unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week, on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like.”
See how only one thing is happening there? Sally and Joe are exchanging information. That’s it. Great dialogue needs to do more than that.
The first key to dialogue is about misalignment or disconnection. That is, each character brings different desires or concerns to the exchange, and even if those characters are allies, their desires don’t align perfectly.
Take this example from the short story “Flexion” by Cate Kennedy. Frank is a farmer who has been in a tractor accident and is now wheelchair bound. His wife (unnamed) is the protagonist of the story.
“You just have to do this till I get the hang of it,” he mutters as she helps him manoeuvre into the shower.
She ignores him, just goes on explaining. “Now you lower yourself onto the seat using the handrails and back out your walker because you’re not supposed to get it wet.”
“Right. I’ll be right now.”
“Well, I’ll just stay and turn on the taps. See, they’re low — they put them there specially.”
“Be easier if I could stand up. Reach the bloody soap myself then.”
“I’ll look out for one of those soap-on-a-rope things.”
God, the flesh is hanging off him. His knuckles are white and waxy as they cling to the handles; he’s as scared and frail as an old, old man. Scared to turn his head or take one hand off the rail. One misstep away from a nursing home. His hair needs a cut and she decides she’ll do it later at the kitchen table.
“That’s better,” he says as she adjusts the hot tap.
And she can hear that he’s about to say thank you, then stops and swallows. Even without the thanks, though, she thinks it’s probably the longest conversation they’ve had for months.
“Now you need to put the brake locks on this every time you pull up, understand? Don’t forget — up with the handrails, step onto the rubber mat, both hands on the walker handles then release the brake.”
“I’m not stupid,” he mutters, but his eyes are following her every move, the pupils dilated.
I choose this example because the misalignment is subtler than a more conventional conflict or argument, in which misalignment is clear and obvious (and that’s why I prefer the terms misalignment or disconnection rather than conflict). Here, Frank is scared and resentful, powerless and angry about his new physical state. His wife is piteous and powerful.
Note how they talk past one another, fail to express what they’re thinking. They don’t reply to one another exactly. When she notes how the taps are “low—they put them there specially,” Frank doesn’t reply with “Yes, I see. I suppose that makes sense.” He says, “Be easier if I could stand up.”
The Energy of the Exchange
The dialogue has energy because of the misalignment, which can come from the following sources:
- The characters have different desires.
- The characters have different approaches to the problem.
- The characters have different understandings of the current situation.
Another way to state this is that all dialogue is between opponents. Even when allies are engaged in dialogue, for that scene, they are in some kind of opposition.
Chuck Palahniuk points out that a primary weakness in the work of new writers is when characters “volley questions and answers, completing each exchange and leaving the energy flat, and he offers this example of a flat exchange:
“Did you walk the dogs?”
“Yeah, an hour ago.”
“Do they need to go out, now?”
“They should be fine.”
See how the loop closes with each exchange? I see a lot of dialogues from novice writers like this, which amount to what I call interviews or Q&As. They’re boring.
Screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb lays out “A, B, and C choices” for dialogue.
The A choice completes the expectation of the question: “Did you walk the dogs?”
The A choice: “Yeah, an hour ago.”
It’s just an interview. And it’s not that intersting. It’s flat. The energy is dead.
But you can create energy with a B or C choice.
The B choice responds to the question but spins it for tension.
The C choice ignores the question altogether and reveals a totally different concern or desire of the respondee.
Did you walk the dogs?
A: Yeah, an hour ago. (Completes the expectation of the question.)
B: They’re your dogs! (Addresses the question, but spins for tension.)
C: The lab called with your test results. (Ignores the question and brings up a different concern.)
I think there’s actually something between a B and C choice. If you look back at the excerpt above from “Flexion,” you can see that Frank never has an A choice, but his responses aren’t always easy to categorize as a B or C. When he says, “Right. I’ll be right now,” for instance, is that a B or C? I’d say it’s a little bit of both. He’s sort of addressing the previous utterance, but he’s also saying, more or less, “Okay, leave me alone now.”
But this brings us to the next imperative for dialogue.
Beneath the stated lies the unstated. Dialogue is immediately richer and more layered when what is spoken conceals/reveals some different meaning below it. That different meaning is subtext.
When Frank says, “Right. I’ll be right now,” the subtext is “Go away.”
Sometimes, you can clarify the subtext via the other character’s response to the text, which is what Cate Kennedy does when Frank’s wife says, “Well, I’ll just stay and turn on the taps.” She knows his subtext was “Go away” and she responds to that.
You can also reveal subtext by showing either a POV character’s interiority or a non-POV character’s actions. Frank’s wife’s interiority certainly helps us read her concerns and her interpretations of Frank’s concerns.
And Frank’s body language in the final line (“but his eyes are following her every move, the pupils dilated”) shows that below the “I’m not stupid,” is a subtextual “I’m trying to make sense of all of this.”
Don’t Say What They Mean
In building subtext, think about the character’s desires/attitude/concerns/understanding/approach in any given situation. And then be sure that what they say doesn’t line up exactly with the desire/attitude/concern/understanding/approach.
Subtex is a way to build authenticity in dialogue. Because people rarely say exactly what they mean. Instead,
- They withhold information
- They worry about impressions and thus calculate their responses
- They try to soften the blow of bad news or demands
- They exaggerate the seriousness of things they’re very concerned about
- They fail to listen to others or they listen selectively
- They misunderstand others
- They attempt to get what they want by nudging and manipulating
- Or, best of all, they don’t know exactly what they really want
The best thing you can do for your dialogue is to create misalignment and subtext. The two usually go hand in hand, in fact.
If you’re not paying attention to these two pillars of compelling dialogue, you may end up with an interview, a Q&A, an info dump, or a therapy session. Is there a place for conveying information via dialogue? There is, in fact. And you can read about how to do that here: Exposition in Dialogue.
You might also want to consider triangulating dialogue to provide more opportunities for subtext and misalignment: Triangulate Dialogue.
Questions? Objections? Let me know. Send me a note, or comment below.
Thanks for reading!
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