As writers, we’re familiar with the rant about “show, don’t tell.” We’re supposed to bring our stories to life so vividly readers can see it all happening and forget they’re being told a story. But the truth is all our best efforts at showing are really just a magic trick. Written fiction is always and inevitably about us telling our readers a story—with one exception. And brownie points for you if you already know that exception is dialogue.
Dialogue is the one aspect of story you can share with readers without needing to describe, embellish, or otherwise bring it to life. All you have to do is record exactly what your characters say, and let their words speak for themselves.
But first your characters need something to talk about, right? And it’s gotta be good. Like Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn good. More than that, it’s got to be good and it’s got to move the plot in meaningful ways. No pressure, right?
A few weeks ago, “Jamie” left a comment talking about this common dilemma among writers and offering some excellent advice:
I had a colleague ask me once about dialogue, as in the characters having something to say to each other. Not even making dialogue witty or full of subtext, but just talking to each other, period….
[F]or me the idea is that characters should have something to say to each other, or there’s something wrong. There should be an immediate purpose—“hey, want to get a pizza?”—and a larger purpose, e.g., strategizing how to thwart an upcoming heist while they eat the pizza. Dialogue should reveal something of the characters, as in maybe one character always orders something different on her pizza, and the other one has a specific topping combination named for her because she only ever orders that one.
I think I advised her to consider her plot and themes, on the grounds that dialogue may flow from there. I don’t know if you’ve ever addressed dialogue from the angle of “what do they say when they’re talking?” But I’ve seen a few other writers struggle with that question. I suspect it would be a breakthrough if they could crack that particular element.
To that end, let’s take a look at what meaningful dialogue looks like and how you can find answers to “what should your characters talk about?” on every single page.
3 Different Types of Dialogue
Dialogue manifests in several different ways, all of which are perfectly legit.
1. Conversation in a Scene (Action-Oriented)
First off and most obvious is dialogue that occurs in the action half of scene structure—the scene portion which focuses on goal, conflict, and disaster. These are the scenes in which your POV character wants something. She has a goal, and it’s very likely she’s going to need to talk to someone else along the way because:
- She needs information (a goal in itself).
- Another character is creating conflict by verbally and/or physically blocking her ability to reach that goal.
- She’s voicing her emotions about the goal.
For Example: The Time Traveler’s Wife
“I’m okay. Can you guys do me a favor?” They nod. “Gomez, go back to the church. I’m there, waiting in the vestibule. Pick me up and bring me here. Smuggle me into the downstairs men’s john and leave me there. Ben, keep an eye on me,” (I point at my chest) “and when I tell you to, grab my tux and bring it to me in the men’s room. Okay?”
Gomez asks, “How much time do we have?”
He nods and walks away.
2. Conversations in a Sequel (Reaction-Oriented)
After the action-focused scene portion comes the sequel, in which characters react to their thwarted or semi-thwarted goal in the previous segment and figure out what to do about it via reaction, dilemma, and decision. These scenes are often the talkiest of the entire story. This is where a lot of great character reflection and development can happen and where characters can share interesting facts about each other—insofar as those facts are pertinent to the conflict. These conversations aren’t usually as focused as the dialogue in scenes. They offer the opportunity to deep-dive into character motivations.
For Example: Open Range
BOSS: I married once. Never knowed that, did you, Charley? Had a wife and child. Sweet little spread, too. It was nothing fancy, but we was young. Loved each other. Never had a cross word. They caught the typhus and died. And after that, home didn’t seem a place to spend time. Believe I’ve changed my mind on that now that I’m getting on in years. If Button lives and we survive Baxter, I swear I aim to see to it there’s a home he’s sleeping in instead of the cold prairie. Have yourself a last cup of tea, Charley. I’d like to see Button again, Miss Barlow.
SUE: Of course.
BOSS: I know the way.
CHARLEY: Whew. Been riding with him years. Never said nothing about being married.
3. Standalone Dialogue
Not all dialogue will be part of an in-depth exchange. Throughout your story, you’ll also need standalone or throwaway lines of dialogue that serve any number of purposes:
- Sharing information.
- Creating verisimilitude via background noise.
- Offering catalysts for your narrating character’s goals and reactions.
For Example: Gilmore Girls
LUKE: Hey, wrong table.
RORY: Since when is there a right table?
LUKE: Since the coffee cake I baked for you and the stupid balloons I blew up are at that table, over there.
RORY: You blew up balloons for me?
RORY: Oh, Luke, you old softie.
LUKE: I count to three, it’s gone.
RORY: Thank you.
4 Types of Information Dialogue Can Share
What should your characters talk about?
In a nutshell, a story is a sharing of information. This is just as true of dialogue as any other device used to tell that story. This means that whatever your characters are talking about should be designed to share information of one sort or another, in one way or another.
Although dialogue should never be used to info dump information (especially via the clumsy “as you know, Bob” crutch), it is actually one of the best ways to share info. This only works, however, when what you’re sharing moves the plot. Done skillfully, the very sharing between characters becomes a plot movement in itself.
There are three types of information you might share in your dialogue:
1. Your Characters Can Talk About Worldbuilding
Story is a give and take between characters and the world in which they live. The things your character knows about the setting and the things he does not will always be pertinent. Many setting facts will be shared in narrative, but the most interesting and important can be shared in dialogue. This is especially true in the beginning of the story, when readers are being introduced to the setting, the rules that govern it, and the specific problems it is presenting the protagonist.
For Example: The Great Escape
RAMSEY: Colonel, do you expect officers to forget their duty?
VON LUGER: No. It is because we expect the opposite that we have brought you here. This is a new camp. It has been built to hold you and your men. It is organised to incorporate all we have learned of security measures. And in me, you will not be dealing with a common jailer, but with a staff officer personally selected for the task by the Luftwaffe high command. We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket, and we intend to watch this basket carefully.
RAMSEY: Very wise.
VON LUGER: You will not be denied the usual facilities. Sports, a library, a recreation hall, and for gardening we will give you tools. We trust you to use them for gardening. Devote your energies to these things. Give up your hopeless attempts to escape. And, with intelligent cooperation, we may all sit out the war as comfortably as possible.
2. Your Characters Can Talk About Themselves
Most people like to talk about themselves. Same goes for characters. And if they don’t like to talk about themselves, why so much more the delicious, since other interested characters get to pry out the details. But the tricky key here is that, as with all dialogue, the character information can’t be just random info.
Your protagonist had a treehouse when she was eight, loves red licorice, and can’t stand penny loafers—so what?
Taken at face value, none of these facts are particularly interesting and, out of context, certainly don’t seem likely to move the plot. But if she hid in the treehouse when her scary uncle came to visit, associates red licorice with her best friend’s funeral, and resents loafers because her lazy first boyfriend wore them—now you have something worth exploring in dialogue, especially if these details and another character’s learning of them via dialogue will advance the plot.
For example: Mistborn
“Do you always read at balls?” she asked.
The young man looked up. “Whenever I can get away with it.”
“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of coming?” Vin asked. “Why attend if you’re just goign to avoid socializing?”
“You’re up here too,” he pointed out.
Vin flushed. “I just wanted to get a brief view of the hall.”:
“Oh? And why di you refuse all three men who asked you to dance?”
Vin paused. the man smiled, then turned back to his book.
“There were four,” Vin said with a huff. “And I refused them because I don’t know how to dance very well.”
3. Your Characters Can Talk About the Plot
Your characters don’t live in a vacuum. They live in a plot. So when in doubt about an appropriate subject for them to discuss, take a look at that delightful little humdinger of a plot you’ve got going on. Your protag’s a detective trying to solve a mystery? He can talk about that. She’s a single mom trying to keep her kid out of trouble? Tons of conversation fodder right there. He’s a soldier trying to overcome PTSD? Sounds juicy to me.
For Example: Captain America: Winter Soldier
FURY: This is Project Insight. Three next generation helicarriers synced to a network of targeting satellites.
STEVE: Launched from the Lemurian Star.
FURY: Once we get them in the air they never need to come down. Continuous suborbital flight courtesy of our new repulsor engines.
FURY: Well, he had a few suggestions once he got an up close look at our old turbines. These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
STEVE: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.
FURY: We can’t afford to wait that long.
STEVE: Who’s “we”?
FURY: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.
STEVE: By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.
5 Questions to Help You Vet Your Dialogue
The best way to write dialogue is to start with a focus (what does this conversation need to accomplish in the story?) and then just loose the characters’ wagging tongues. Writing fast and furious dialogue is not just fun, it’s also a great way to come up with some gems. But once you’ve got all those quote marks littering your page, how do you know if what your characters are saying is actually important enough to keep?
Here are five questions to ask about every dialogue exchange.
1. Does It Have a Point?
This is the big one. Are these characters talking just to fill space—because they’re bored and have nothing better to do and because you’re bored and didn’t know what else to write? Or is there a reason they’re talking? Does one—or preferably both—characters have a goal in this conversation?
The goal doesn’t always have to be explicit (e.g., the detective wants to to know where his suspect was on the night of the murder, so he says, “Tell me where you were on the night of the fifteenth!”). Sometimes it can be implicit subtext buried beneath what is otherwise meaningless nothings (the single mom is worried about her kid but doesn’t want to smother him, so she says, “Did you see that cute cat video?”).
For Example: Star Wars: A New Hope
THREEPIO: He says he’s the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a resident of these parts. And it’s a private message for him. Quite frankly, sir I don’t know what he’s talking about. Our last master was Captain Antilles, but with what
we’ve been through, this little R2 unit has become a bit eccentric.
LUKE: Obi-Wan Kenobi? I wonder if he means old Ben Kenobi?
THREEPIO: I beg your pardon, sir, but do you know what he’s talking about?
LUKE: Well, I don’t know anyone named Obi-Wan, but old Ben lives out beyond the dune sea. He’s kind of a strange
old hermit. I wonder who she is. It sounds like she’s in trouble. I’d better play back the whole thing.
2. Does It Move the Plot?
Like all scenes, dialogue can’t exist in a vacuum. If the story remains unchanged at the end of any conversation, then it’s probably extraneous. Change is the only way to know if your plot is progressing. If that “hi, how are you?” across the fence with the neighbor adds no new information that prompts a new action (or conversation) from your character, then it’s not moving the plot. This is where conflict plays a vital role. Dialogue exchanges between characters with opposing goals can be a fabulous way of presenting obstacles and, thus, conflict.
For Example: A Little Princess
“She has frocks of every other color. Has she a black one?”
Miss Amelia began to turn pale.
“No—ye-es!” she sniffed. “Oh, sister! What can have happened?”
Miss Minchin wasted no words.
“Captain Crewe is dead,” she said. “He has died without a penny. That spoiled, pampered, fanciful child is left a pauper on my hands.”
3. Does It Share Important Information?
Whether or not a piece of information is important is entirely contextual. “My favorite color is fuchsia” could be either incredibly boring nonsense—or that one clue upon which the whole story pivots.
So here’s the rule of thumb: even the most boring and seemingly surface bits of dialogue should have deeper meaning. If you need a character to be momentarily distracted on the subway by a walk-on character, then try your best to make even that tiny exchange have at least a thematic purpose. Nothing in your story should ever be throwaway—including the dialogue.
For Example: Ender’s Game
“Somebody had to have built all this,” Abra said. “Look, this skull place, it’s not rock, look at it. This is concrete.”
“I know,” Ender said. “They built it for me.”
“I know this place, Abra. The buggers built it for me.”
“The buggers were all dead fifty years before we got here.”
“You’re right, it’s impossible. But I know what I know.”
4. Does It Share Something Interesting?
And now, I’m sorry to say, I’m about to complicate everything. It’s not enough for dialogue to ace all the above by being pointed and purposeful and the natural outgrowth of your character’s super-important goal. It’s also got to be interesting. This is the single greatest factor separating bad dialogue from good dialogue and good dialogue from masterful dialogue. Is what your characters are talking about interesting? Is it entertaining? If readers opened your book to this conversation, would they want to read it even though they have no idea what’s happening in the story’s larger context?
For Example: Casablanca
RENAULT: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds?
Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.
RICK: It’s a combination of all three.
RENAULT: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
RENAULT: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
RICK: I was misinformed.
5. What Are the Characters’ Motives?
If you find you’re struggling with any of the above, take a step back. Dialogue is a surface interaction. It is an external manifestation of the characters’ deeper workings. In other words, dialogue never just pops out of nowhere. It is always motivated by something. This is particularly important when creating wonderful subtextual dialogue—in which the words of the conversation actually have nothing to do with what is really being said. Take a look at each speaker’s motive for pursuing this conversation. What does each person really want?
For Example: The Book Thief
“You told me all about the goal,” he said, “but I don’t know what sort of day it is up there. I don’t know if you scored it in the sun, or if the clouds have covered everything.” His hand prodded at his short-cropped hair, and his swampy eyes pleaded for the simplest of simple things. “Could you go up and tell me how the weather looks?”
Naturally, Liesel hurried up the stairs. She stood a few feet from the spit-stained door and turned on the spot, observing the sky.
When she returned to the basement, she told him.
“The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….”
Character is story. Story is character. Dialogue is a tool to represent both in an entertaining and accessible way. The next time you find yourself asking “what should your characters talk about?”, figure out what topic would best serve the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters—and then let those quote marks fly!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What should your characters talk about in your current scene? Tell me in the comments!