Dialogue, along with prose and description, represent the 3 aspects of scene writing. Characters are either observing, taking action, or talking (sometimes to themselves). Among the 3, dialogue is unique in that it grants every character a voice of their own.
Every story is told from a specific perspective, a “point of view” character. Some stories may feature multiple POV characters, but in almost every story there will be a large cast of characters (major and minor) who are never granted the POV role. But dialogue grants every character an opportunity to share their own thoughts, ideas, and perspective, in their own voice.
Good dialogue, like all aspects of writing, involves imitating real life, while also enhancing it, “cutting out the boring parts,” essentially.
From a narrative perspective, good dialogue should attempt to do 1 or more of the following:
- Advance one of the plot threads
- Reveal information about the character, and/or deepen character relationships
- Explore underlying themes & ideas
- Engage the setting (immediate and/or the larger world)
Whenever a character speaks, they are trying to accomplish at least 1 of the following goals:
- Reveal something (information, a thought, feeling, or opinion, etc.)
- Conceal something
- Learn something from others
All conversations are centered around learning. What makes each conversation unique is what a character is trying to learn, reveal, and/or conceal.
Consider the famous scene from Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter first meets Clarice Starling. Starling is initially trying to portray herself as a respectful and worthwhile person, and thus convince Dr. Lecter to speak with her, and potentially reveal things about himself. But Dr. Lecter comes to the conclusion that Clarice Starling is not someone worthy of his respect. He expresses that opinion in his remarks to her. In turn, Starling goes from amicable to hostile, lashing out in an effort to “reveal” to Dr. Lecter that he himself is not without flaws, and perhaps goad him into humility, and contrition. Instead he concludes that she is utterly beneath his interest and dismisses her.
Whether a conversation is hostile or friendly can be determined by a few key factors:
- Do the characters understand each other? Are they correctly interpreting each other’s words and gestures? (Lack of understanding can lead to frustration, or fear)
- Is one character trying to deceive another? Or just withholding information?
- Is each character being honest and open about their intentions? If yes, are any goals mutually exclusive (which would most likely lead to conflict)?
- What opinions does each character have about the other?
Defining each character’s goals within a conversation, and recognizing what you as the author are trying to achieve through this conversation, helps narrow the scope of a conversation.
Conflicted Dialogue-Understanding & Secrets