Without a doubt, my favourite part of any narrative – be that a book, a game, anime…etc – is always the dialogue. Nothing gets my blood flowing like meaningful, deep interaction between characters.
I’m not at the point in my writing where I can offer explicit advise for improving it, but I do think dialogue and character interactions are a strong point within what I write. And well… that might not mean a whole lot. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to gain insight and perspective into how and why a person does the things they do, and why some of those things are preferable to others. Even if what I’m offering is perfectly subjective, I’m sure something can be taken from it.
Dialogue, there’s an art to it – at least to good dialogue.
I imagine it as a long bridge. On one side, you have wooden, emotionless dialogue. On the other side you have overaffected dialogue that you might come across in Hamlet. There’s a fine balance to strike between the two extremes, and not a universal one. Each character, and each situation/encounter those characters are placed within, require the scale moving further to one side or the other.
Too often, I get into a book, loving the premise of the story, of what the world has to offer – a vision that I have never before witnessed. And then, I am greeted by stale dialogue, or on some occasions, far too little of it. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily make the piece bad, but neither does it help in making it good.
So, why is dialogue so hard to write?
I don’t believe dialogue itself is hard to write, there are aspects of it which can make it difficult, complex. Unlike general descriptions – world-building if you like – dialogue is hard to envisage, there’s a complexity in turning feelings into words that are appropriate for a given situation. For example, describing a forrest-clad mountain – we know what that looks like; having read that, you have the image within your mind. And if we were to compare, all our images would look relatively alike. Now try to envisage two people talking about that forest, about how it makes them feel. There is no simple way, because unlike visually, there is no singular, objective answer. Each person would write something different. For one, it might be beautiful and serene, for another, desolate and lonely.
Maybe outside of those two extremes on each end of the bridge, there is no bad dialogue, just different interpretations and preferences of perfectly acceptable words. Then again, maybe there is dialogue so universally relatable and beautiful, that it can be appreciated by every person. I think a writer like Haruki Murakami might fit into this category. I can safely say, his books are the only ones that have completely astounded me – and not just his dialogue, but everything.
What makes good dialogue?
Recently, I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a science fiction novel by Becky Chambers. It’s not your typical sci-fi read, nor what I was expecting. Instead, I found something better; a great, deep character-driven story about alien races, conflict, cultural differences, people working together, and how relationships form and exist within such small spaces. The dialogue within it was nothing short of brilliant. Most importantly, it felt real. It felt like a living, breathing person could say those things. The voices, they meant something to me.
There are endless places on the interwebs where people can find “How to write dialogue.” How to get the technicalities right, the punctuation, the grammar, and the unwritten rules. Sure, they’re important, but easily graspable. It’s what commas and ‘saids’ in the correct places can’t teach, that’s important. Or, at least I think so.
“As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.” – Stephen King
I want to know who a character is, and understand why they say the things they do. I want the characters to discuss things, for the words not to be trivialised and lost in endless inane descriptions. If a certain person feels a certain way about a certain thing – have them talk about it, rather than an endless interior monologue. That’s what I think makes for great dialogue. If it doesn’t sound and feel like conversation you could have in the scarily-real world, then should it be really on the page? I question this when I come across such situations, wherever that might be.
What do I do?
- Know my character/understand them, their motivations, their vulnerabilities and their loves. The things that make living worthwhile for them. Without this, my dialogue is bleak, and emotionless, because it has no foundation – little true humanity propping it up.
- Create intimate and strong relationships between the characters. Without these, the words often feel forced and meaningless.
- Embody my character. I step into their shoes for the moment. What would I do if I were them? Take what I know, and use it – I try not to be afraid of putting my most raw self onto the page, after all, I think writing’s as much about self-expression as it is anything else.
- Use past experiences and people I have known to add realism to areas where I would otherwise have little knowledge.
- Spend my time wondering how the dialogue I write is even passable, considering how little I leave the house, and how absolutely terrified I am of people.
You don’t have to do any of those things. I’m a strong believer of just stopping what you’re doing, writing, and seeing where it leads. You can scour the interwebs and books all day long for writing tips, with the honest goal of becoming a better writer. Yet, I’m not sure that’s the answer. Everyone writes differently, there is no singular path to take. Over time, you’ll come to know and recognise the things that work, and the things that don’t. Some of those things, people will be vehemently against, even if they work beautifully for yourself. You can’t know if you don’t try. Writing is as much about trial and error as all other things are. Dialogue in particular has endless layers, and endless routes to go down: Some work, some don’t. The feeling when you find something that does is irreplaceable.
So, write dialogue, and write it badly! Just keep writing it, that’s the important thing. Don’t skimp on it, and fill the gaps with passive descriptions. Watch the world around you… well, actually, if you’re like me… read lots of books with great dialogue, watch lots of movies and anime, and play lots of video games. Because God forbid I leave the house…!
Though, I really do implore you to get out there. See the world. Write the world.
Let me know your thoughts, and how you do things!
And, as always, constructive criticism is appreciated!