Memorable dialogue makes for a memorable story. It is both an art and a craft, and as such, warrants lifelong study.
Few would doubt that the ability to write great dialogue is necessary for crafting a successful screenplay, but should a novelist regard this skill as equally important?
Although novels no longer lead the story market as they did a century or two ago, they do survive as an alternative vehicle for experiencing narrative.
Of course, competition from films and computer games has impacted how current novels are written, giving rise to a requirement for stories with a faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, impactful and gripping dialogue. Memorable dialogue offers the writer the opportunity to compete.
”Memorable dialogue draws us into the hearts and minds of the characters who express it, and it does so with immediacy and impact.”
The topic has inspired the writing of countless of books and courses, but here is a short list on what great dialogue should accomplish:
- Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
- Dialogue should evoke story questions.
- Dialogue should reveal emotion.
- Dialogue should advance the plot.
- Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.
Here is an example from John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men:
‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’
‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’
‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’
‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’
Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’
‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’
‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.
‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’
This dialogue, filled with pathos and authenticity, jumps right off the page, offering us an alternative experience to the current obsession with superheroes. It captures the tone and colour of speech, evokes backstory, and offers us a heart-felt glimpse into who these characters truly are.
You won’t get that kind of authenticity from the men and women who swoosh around the skies in capes and tights, now will you?
How many of the five elements of memorable dialogue mentioned in the list above can you find in this extract? Write in and let me know!
Memorable dialogue performs several functions simultaneously, driving the plot forward while simultaneously revealing the depths of the characters who express it.