IN his book, On Writing, master editor and storyteller, Sol Stein stresses that good dialogue is never on-the-nose. It does not solely focus on the plot. It is certainly never trivial, unlike much of the dialogue we hear in casual conversations at parties or in supermarkets.
Good dialogue is oblique and unexpected. Yet, in deflecting, it hints at the very secrets the characters are trying to hide. It heightens our sense of intrigue, curiosity, and suspense.
Deflection takes several forms. Here are some examples:
Types of deflection
1. Abruptly changing the subject:
“Got that hundred bucks I lent you?”
“Went to the bank to draw it. Saw your girlfriend in the queue. Don’t think she spotted me. Too busy falling all over some guy with male model looks.”
2. Answering a question with a question:
“Have you ever stolen anything of value from a friend?“
“Are you serious?”
“Are you having an affair, Peter?”
Peter looks at his wife but says nothing. At last he gets up and pours himself a stiff drink.
4. Action that is at odds with the dialogue:
She slaps him hard across the face so that his hair flies to the side.
He responds: “If you ever stop doing that I’ll leave you.”
5. Counter attacking:
“You look bad.”
“So do you.”
6. Threatening :
He says: “Don’t wait up for me tonight, honey. Working really late at the office again.”
She says: “Mind if I drop by after gym to say hi?”
7. A counter revelation:
“I’m sorry Sam. I never meant to sleep with your girlfriend. It kinda just happened. And it was only that once.”
“That’s ok, Ben. It’s not like I haven’t slept with yours!”
In each case deflection acts to parry the original question or statement.
Deflection, in its various colours, is indispensable to the writing of good dialogue. Done well it helps to sustain curiosity and suspense. Use it often.
ONE of the most common mistakes we make early on as writers is that we do not give each of our characters distinctive dialogue.
All too often Tom tends to sound like Dick and Dick like Harry. There is little separation in tone, style, idiom, colour, let alone subtlety or shading. We mistakenly concentrate on having the dialogue promote plot, rather than simultaneously using it to reveal character, too.
Yet, dialogue, when written well, is one of the most efficient ways of establishing texture and variety in our characters. Watch any episode of the Simpsons and try to redistribute the dialogue between characters. Close to impossible to do. That’s because each utterance belongs to that character and that character alone.
“Distinctive dialogue brims with life and individuality. It transmits the values, manners, texture, idiom, and unique personality of each character in the story.”
The Power of Distinctive Dialogue
In Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides us with this example, taken from his adaptation of The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me, by Suzanne Kingsbury:
MAN ON A SODA MACHINE
I’m doing good. Annie May’s on the phone this mornin’, her son
Walter he run around with that little Peterson boy. The Petersons,
they can’t hold themselves together. Big James Earl Peterson,
that’s that boy’s daddy, he gone shot himself through the mouth
last month. Just last Sat’day, that little un done the same thing, .22
on his tongue, and pulled the trigger. Walter gone and have to watch
it. He ten years old.
Son of a bitch.
MAN ON A SODA MACHINE
That boy’s fat as a hog, too. Dead fat kid on a back porch in this heat’s
a Goddamn buttache.
Compare this to the career diplomat who’s appalled with America for lying to the South Vietnamese:
I’ve been here five years…
(looks at Ellen)
This is my home…And now we’re just running out…
(this kills him)
Nobody asked us to come here. We told those people we’d save
them from the boogie man. And now they trusted us…And now it’s
over…Just shot too pieces. We came in here with our “we wear
coats and ties, we know what we’re doing here folks” attitude, and…
we didn’t…And now… and now, we’re just leaving them like a thief
in the night…leaving them… in such a mess… and, and… I’m so
ashamed and so sorry…
The pace, idiom, texture, and speech patterns between the two is clearly very different, as is the attitude to life. Each character sounds like himself and no other. Try to emulate this in your own characters and watch them spring to life.
At its best, distinctive dialogue conveys, in a subtle way, the values, texture, idiom and unique personality of each character in the story.
Dialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.
Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.
But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.
For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.
Dactions for novels and screenplays
Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.
If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.
If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.
Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.
This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.
Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.
Dialogue, he informs us, performs four functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.
Information: This seems straight forward enough. Tell the audience what they need to know to follow the story. The catch is that the writer should do so without being obvious or slowing down the forward thrust of the tale.
A good example of providing necessary information while maintaining the tension occurs at the start of Inglorious Basterds where a Nazi officer interviews the French farmer concerning the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area – a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the very floorboards where the interview is taking place!
Emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should also reveal emotion. Failure to do so makes for boring lines. In the above mentioned example, each line uttered by the Nazi officer in the scene serves to heighten the stakes for the farmer and his family since discovering the Jews under the floorboards will surely lead to everyone’s execution.
Plot: Additionally dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously so that it does not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that the Nazi officer is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that the Nazi already has the answers and is merely prolonging the process to the torment of the farmer and his family.
Character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. The Nazi officer, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially seems more of a conversation between friends than an interrogation. The farmer, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial – part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.
Working in unison, then, these functions make for effective and engrossing dialogue – a boon to any storytelling toolkit.
Good dialogue performs four functions – it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.
Blending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well. Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too.
But too much dialogue can distance the reader from the physical environment of the scene.
Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description. Characters casually leaning, smiling, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.
Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo. The phallic nature of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story, had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour. References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text:
The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still.
Interspersing your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.
Blend action, description and dialogue together to vary interest and deepen your scenes.
“Writing great dialogue is an art in and of itself. For a film scriptwriter, it’s a vital skill,” writes Dwight V. Swain in his book, Film Scriptwriting.
Few would doubt the validity of his comment with regard to film, but should a novelist regard compelling dialogue as being equally important?
Yes, of course.
Novels no longer dominate the story market in the way they did a few decades ago – they have to compete with the deluge of new and exciting products, such as films and games, for the attention of their readers. Additionally, audio-visual products influence what consumers have come to expect from their entertainment – faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, authentic and gripping dialogue.
The crafting of compelling dialogue is the subject of countless of books and courses, but here is a short checklist on what great dialogue should accomplish:
Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
Dialogue should reveal emotion.
Dialogue should advance the plot.
Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.
Physicist Benjamin Vlahos’s wife, Mitanda, has been dead for thirty years, when she appears to him during the worst storm to ever hit the north east coast of Australia, and tries to persuade him to move on with his life.
Miranda: “Take the handkerchief from your pocket and place it back inside the box. Close the lid and never open it again.”
Miranda: “You know why.”
Benjamin: “I don’t know how to move on.”
Miranda: “You do. You must.”
Benjamin: “What about the math? What about the answers I seek?”
Miranda: “You already know the answers to the most important questions. The rest is gossamer wafting in the wind.
Benjamin: “Is it?”
Miranda: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.”
Benjamin: “It’s too difficult. I don’t have an ending.”
Miranda: “Do you still believe that? After all these years?”
Benjamin: “I believe in the math.”
Analysing the dialogue in The Nostalgia of Time Travel we discover that this is a story about a man stuck in the past. Benjamin is too tortured and tormented to move on with his life. Miranda defines the central beat in the plot: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.” This is the only way that Benjamin will end the years of stasis.
Benjamin, then, is characterised as a man steeped in regret, unsure of himself, unwilling to live his life. Miranda, on the other hand, is calmly confident, gently encouraging. The dialogue has to convey all of this.
Importantly, emotion, character, and plot are communicated sub-textually, rather than through on-the-nose dialogue. For example, when Miranda asks Benjamin to put the handkerchief in the box and never open the lid again, he asks, “Why?” Her reply comes indirectly: “You know why.” The reader knows the answer to the question from a previous context, so a direct answer is unnecessary.
Great dialogue performs several functions simultaneously.
In my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading scenes with seemingly contradictory cues to increase interest through tension.
This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.
Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.
Here’s an example:
Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.
The bad way to write this scene it is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party winning the argument at the end.
The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow.
In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected.
In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands, holding the higher ground, always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.
But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up, towering over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him, causing Cage to back up.
Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair and is startled.
This small incident reveals the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.
No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue.
Add tension and interest to your scenes by having the action play out in counterpoint to a threat being delivered through dialogue.
Trish: Thank you Stavros. I’d like to start with the idea that although film and the short story may each employ different strengths to tell a particular tale, what they share is greater than their differences.
“Short story and film are expressions of the same art, the art of telling a story by a series of subtly implied gestures, swift shots, moments of suggestion…”(H .E. Bates).
Dialogue is especially significant in this respect. By eavesdropping on what they say, readers and viewers hear characters’ desires and intentions directly from the source. Crafted with care, verbal exchanges demonstrate character traits, emotional states, relationships with twists of deceit, manipulation and asymmetry, and they reveal facts and motivations that push the plot.
‘Talk’ that achieves none of these is idle chatter that clutters the story and slows the pace.
In Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, I unpick dialogue in a couple of stories, explaining the role of each spoken phrase. The following excerpt shows how much can be conveyed through a few lines of dialogue within a 100-word micro-fiction. In this story, a couple sit at a table in a train-station café. A tramp occupies the same table and lifts his T-shirt to scratch flea bites.
“Let’s move,” you hiss.
We learn the character being quoted is probably intolerant of tramps. A tag had to be used because no one has spoken up to that point and there are three people at the table, but the ‘hiss’ not only tells us how the words were delivered, but that the narrator seems to have a negative attitude towards the comment, or the speaker – to use ‘whisper’ instead, would have given a whole different meaning and character hint.
“There’s still an hour,” I say.
It is unlikely that the tramp would have spoken this, so the tag is not necessary in that sense, but it provides the symmetry of ‘you said/I said’ to point up the rejoinder that deliberately ignores the subtext of the other speaker as to the reason for moving: there is underlying tension here.
We’re starting over: going on a second honeymoon – to Torquay.
This suggests problems in the past but the inner voice of the narrator is optimistic, and gives vital plot information – where they are going and why.
“You’re always so obtuse.” I feel your spittle spatter my face.
The choice of ‘obtuse’, while apt anyway, was made especially for its spittle-delivering qualities. The use of ‘always’, like ‘never’, is argumentative and again indicates a history of conflict. The spittle comment is not needed as a speech tag, but it up-grades the speaker’s anger and paints a visual picture of the scene.
You get the Brighton train.
The narrator’s inner dialogue describes an important action in the plot, and the one word “Brighton” tells us there will be no second honeymoon (the significance of “Torquay” earlier). [The Last Train].
Dialogue helps us to create vivid scenes; to emulate the immediacy of film by revealing crucial aspects of our stories directly through the words and actions of characters.
Stavros: Once again, I want to extend a special thank you to Trish Nicholson for agreeing to share with us her considerable knowledge of the craft of writing.
The famous screenwriter William Goldman once said: “A good writer is not someone who knows how to write—but to rewrite.” In this forth post of our five-part series, drawn from Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, we turn our attention to dialogue.
The Art of Dialogue
Good dialogue is never just about relaying essential information—moving the plot forward by fostering the outer journey. It’s also about the inner journey of the characters; its about revealing the reasons why characters act and say the things they do—the subtext that reveals their motivation.
In reviewing your characters’ dialogue look out for the following problems:
1. Are your scenes flat and listless? Are they governed by dialogue that lacks pace, spark? Try injecting emotion, humour—yes, even in drama, a prediction, a challenge, or replace it with silences in which we are shown rather than told things.
2. Is the dialogue in a scene interchangeable between characters? Could I take a phrase from one character and put it in the mouth of another without anyone noticing? If so, your cast and the way they speak, their viewpoint, background, and values, are not unique. Could you imagine interchanging the dialogue of Bart, Homer, or Marge Simpson? Of course not! That’s because these characters are strongly and uniquely defined. Re-examine your own character biographies and ensure that your characters are individuals driven by their own goals. Each character should have his own way of speaking that simultaneously reflects both his inner and outer journeys.
3. Are the major dialogue exchanges in your story governed by contrasting values, conflicts and innuendo? If not, they ought to be.
4. Does your dialogue ramble? Does it meander, seem unnecessarily “talky”? Cull unnecessary dialogue and pare down what remains to the bone. Good dialogue is sharp and precise and moves the plot forward while revealing the reasons for the views and actions it expresses, through subtext. (Please consult this blog for additional posts on subtext in which I provide specific techniques for creating vibrant, interesting dialogue that bristles with verisimilitude).
5. Try not to express plot and intent through direct on-the-nose dialogue. The cinema is not the place to showcase your skill as a soliloquy writer. Can you reveal plot through subtext rather than through direct statement? If you can, do so without hesitation. “I saw your girlfriend kissing a toy boy in the kitchen at your birthday party,” is better than “I’m sorry to hear that you and Marcy aren’t getting along lately.”
Writing good dialogue requires a good ear and an understanding of the medium you’re working in. Listed above are some of the pitfalls to avoid when rewriting dialogue during the forth draft of your story.
If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.
Subtext, in writing, refers to the treasure that lies buried below the surface of a story — its inner meaning. If the “text” is concerned with surface detail — that which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, the “subtext” carries that which is implied, hinted at, or intuited through depth, subtlety, and resonance. Subtext, in the wider sense of the word, operates across different categories such as genre, symbolism, setting, character, vocation, and dialogue, since all are able to transmit hidden or interior meaning. In this post, we shall be focusing on subtext in dialogue.
Saying One Thing and Meaning Several
In dialogue, subtext arises whenever a character lies, hides something, seduces, plots, is merely polite, or is simply unaware of the deeper implications of what is being said. The common denominator is that additional information is presented in a subtle way. Inevitably, subtext acts as a kind of foreshadowing, awaiting for that aha-moment to reveal its true meaning (usually, around a turning point). In Basic Instinct, crime writer Catherine Trumell (Sharon Stone) is interrogated by detectives about the murder of Johnny Boz, a retired rock-star. Her subtext, which targets Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), bristles with veiled threats and sexual innuendo:
NICK: What’s your new book about?
CATHERINE: A Detective. He falls for the wrong woman.
The implication is that her new book is about her and Nick.
NICK: What happens to him?
CATHERINE: She kills him.
This contains a veiled threat and a warning, but also a lure in its hint of a possible sexual liaison (“He falls for the wrong woman”). Later in the interrogation:
NICK: You like playing games, don’t you?
CATHERINE: I have a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.
Catherine not only invites Nick to engage in a-cat-and-mouse game over who killed Johnny Boz, she also engages in a kind of foreplay prior to having sex. Because the audience, like Nick, is aware of the deeper meaning in this (Catherine is already a suspect), the dialogue serves to foreshadow the pay-off in which Catherine, after having made love to Nick, reaches for the murder weapon beneath her bed, only to hesitate and make love to him again, instead. The suggestion is that Nick too will be killed when she’s had her fill of him.
Subtext in dialogue occurs when characters hide something, lie, seduce, plot, are merely being polite, or are unaware of the deeper meaning of what is being said. Its function is to create depth and resonance in the story, as well as to serve foreshadowing.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.