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The Art of Dialogue
It’s always fun to see Twitter or Facebook debates on the best movies. Inevitably you’ll see a slew of movies from the 70s and 80s pop up on these lists. What makes so many of them stand out decades after the fact?
Dialogue is one factor that keeps so many movies made in this era feeling fresh a couple of generations later. What happens when you think of Darth Vader or Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly? Typically, something a character said is what pops to mind first.
One reason I love dialogue is that it opens a door to exploring a character’s mind and soul. It functions as an important framework for seeing what shapes a character’s personality and drives their actions throughout a story.
Characters feel like real people when their thoughts, words, and actions mirror what you would expect to encounter with a real-world person placed in similar circumstances. Dialogue can be powerful in shaping how your audience perceives a character.
Common Dialogue Mistakes
I am perplexed by the approach I see some authors take when they craft dialogue in their stories. Some of these authors do not seem to understand what purpose dialogue serves. Their characters never really spring to life because they approach it in the wrong way.
One common mistake is turning dialogue into a vehicle for unloading exposition onto the reader. One character will suddenly launch into lecture mode with another character and, soon, the page fills with clunky blocks of text that feel like they have been lifted straight from a Wikipedia article. It doesn’t feel anything like an authentic conversation between two people.
A second common mistake is a failure to blend action and viewpoint with dialogue. Some authors become so convinced that including any dialogue tags is a sign of amateurish writing that they will throw out line after line of dialogue without identifying which character is speaking or showing the emotions and body language behind what is said. All this accomplishes is causing confusion in a reader’s mind because the dialogue isn’t framed properly or given the right context.
A third common mistake is using a slew of obtrusive dialogue tags. Again, some authors want to find alternatives to basic tags like said or replied in the name of creativity. What they fail to realize is those words melt into the page and become invisible. Dialogue tags like exclaimed, retorted, or whined draw undue attention to themselves when effective use of body language could convey the same emotion in a more effective manner.
Identifying Good Dialogue
When I write, I always approach a scene in visual terms. I close my eyes and let that scene play out before me like it is a movie and I’m standing off-screen watching everything unfold. This approach serves me well in crafting dialogue.
Tons of readers have praised the dialogue in both of my novels, Pandora Reborn and Under a Fallen Sun, for being realistic, funny, and well-written. It underscores to me what dialogue should accomplish.
Dialogue should reveal character, move the plot forward, give context to any unfolding action, and bring characters to life. If it doesn’t move the needle in these areas for your reader, they are drawn out of the story. Good dialogue should always feel like something real people would say.
Focus on creating authentic conversations between characters. This, of course, involves detailing body language and speech mannerisms to show a character’s personality. It also means taking time to make what a character says in any scene sound and feel realistic. Why would a character in a sci-fi story spout technobabble, for example, at a colleague who is likely to have a similar level of understanding on the same subject?
You need to examine dialogue through the eyes of the characters involved in that conversation. Always remember that your fictional world is the real world to the characters who live in it. Remembering that guiding principle will help you create dialogue that makes your characters like real people.
John Coon has possessed a love for writing since age 12 when he typed out his first stories on an old typewriter belonging to his parents. For 15 years, John has worked as a sports journalist. His byline has appeared in multiple publications and on multiple websites nationwide. John currently writes for the Associated Press and Athlon Sports. He is a graduate of the University of Utah and currently resides in the Salt Lake City metro area. John published his debut novel Pandora Reborn in 2018. Under a Fallen Sun is his second novel.
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