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YMMV: Motivate Your Dialog

👄 People Are Talkin', Talkin' 'Bout People...

Want to write better dialog? Well, there's no shortage of advice out there to guide you. Avoid maid-and-butler exchanges. Listen to how people speak, perhaps by making recordings in public. Try writing a story that's only dialog. Read They're Made Out of Meat by Terry Bisson for inspiration. Well, I'm here to tell you that you don't need any of that. I mean, read Bisson's story--it's short and it's quite good, but you're not necessarily going to learn anything earth-shattering from it. If you want to write good dialog, there's one simple rule you need to follow.

Motivate Your Dialog

I talk a lot about movies. For one, it's the default way that most people consume their fiction these days. It's a lot easier to find cultural touchstones in film than on the page. And for broad story analysis, film is great! But it does operate at a different wavelength than prose does, and what I frequently find with new writers--and I read a lot of work from new writers--is that they aren't writing a story so much as they're trying to describe the movie they're writing in their head. It's a bunch of dialog and blocking and no interiority of their characters. This is a terrible way to write a book, but it's incredibly prevalent because...

Okay, time for some hard truths here. Most people who say they want to write a book, they don't actually want to write a book. They really want to make a movie. Because it's the default way that we consume stories. The problem is: you can't make a movie alone in your free time. You can, however, write a book that way. And I would bet the farm that the majority of aspiring novelists are secretly hoping that their book becomes successful enough to be adapted to film, because that is their real goal for this story they've come up with.

Seriously, spot the lie.

But, as I said a few paragraphs ago, this is a problem because film and prose operate mechanically at fundamentally different levels. What works on screen frequently doesn't work on the page, and nowhere is this more evident than with dialog. This may come as a surprise. Film and television are dialog-heavy, right? Scripts are mostly just lines of dialog with directions about where to point the camera, right? Can't you just take that and add in some flowery descriptions and call it a day? It may sound like I'm exaggerating for comic effect. Reader, I have seen things. Perhaps a more realistic question, though, would be this one: Since dialog is so essential to film, can't we learn from it in order to strengthen the dialog in our stories?

And the answer is no. No you can't. Not because movie dialog isn't good, but because it serves a totally different purpose than dialog does in text. Think about it. Dialog in a story is the main way that characters communicate with each other, but dialog in a movie is the main way that characters communicate to the audience. Film dialog is expository. And it's incredibly artificial. People will walk into a room and say something that no human would say, because there's no other way to convey it to you, the viewer. You don't notice the artificiality because it's being delivered by trained actors, and oh by the way, the other big difference is that it is acted. You only think about the lines, but so much of the information that's communicated happens through gesture and inflection. And sheer magnitude of presence, I might add. Patrick Stewart could read the phone book and you'd be hanging on his every word because the man oozes charisma. There's a reason we pay attractive people millions of dollars to deliver this stuff to us. 

So if all you do is take the movie words and throw "said Pat" at the end of it, it's going to be incredibly flat. And I know this, again, because I've read tons of this stuff. Endless back-and-forth with no flavor or texture outside of what's in the author's head that has no sense of pace or flow and means nothing because I have zero information about the characters who are speaking. It's drudgery. So what's the difference? How does dialog work differently in text? How do we make it effective? And how does this relate to title of this post that I have been studiously avoiding while I talk about movies some more?

I will answer that last question shortly, but I'm going to drag this out a little more first by giving us some context. In prose, especially in our current era of tight third-person perspective, your text is going to break down into three components: narration, thought, and action. Narration is what is being told directly to the reader. It's frequently told in the POV character's voice so it doesn't stand out, but it's being told to the reader. This is where you'll find your descriptions and backstory. The rest of the prose will be thought and action. Respectively, this is your POV character's internal arc and goals, and what your POV character is doing externally in order to accomplish those goals. And since dialog is neither thought nor narrative, then it must be an action that the character is taking in order to advance their goals.

Once more for the kids in the cheap seats: Dialog is an action that your character uses to advance their goals.

Since dialog is action, you treat it like any other action. It has to be motivated. It needs to have some purpose in the mind of the character, and you, the author, should know what that purpose is. It doesn't have to be a very complicated purpose. They could be asking about the weather or letting someone know that they're upset or just trying to crack a joke to lighten the mood. This is perfectly acceptable if your character wants to know what the weather is like, or wants someone to acknowledge their pain, or thinks the that mood is in dire need of lightening. The important thing is that it's a choice that the character makes in furtherance of something. If your character doesn't have a reason to say something... then they shouldn't say it.

But what if you have something that you need to communicate to the audience? That's what narration is for. You don't need your characters to say things to the reader--you can just tell the reader yourself. You're putting words on the page anyway, just go ahead and tell them what they need to know. But keep it out of your characters' mouths. But what if you need to reveal their state of mind? Well, that's what thought is for. Whether it's literal thoughts in italics or just free-indirect speech, it doesn't matter. Sometimes dialog does reveal thought, and that's great, but if the character doesn't have a reason to say it out loud, they shouldn't say it out loud. Dialog in prose is not primarily expository or revelatory, it's primarily goal-oriented. Keep that in mind, and the rest should fall into place.

And what is some of the stuff that will fall into place? I'm glad you asked!

One thing that necessarily spins off of this is that you will find yourself writing less dialog. Reader, this is a good thing. For the most part, dialog is boring. Oh sure, there are some great bits of repartee out there, but your bog-standard back-and-forth between characters is just far less interesting than you think it is while you're writing it. That's because when you're writing it, you're imagining it being performed. But your reader does not get to enjoy your little in-head performance with its bravado and dramatic pauses. They just see words on a page. And if all they have is dialog between two characters to fill out the story, then their consumption of the story becomes very passive. It's the reading equivalent of walking up on two people you don't know very well and listening them have a conversation that you're not part of. Does that sound very fun? No. No, it doesn't.

So if you're not going to have dialog driving the story... what do you replace it with? I'm glad you asked.

Let's talk about business. When I say "business," I don't mean in the economic sense. I'm talking about a specific substrate of character action. "Business" is the stuff that the characters are doing that isn't really pertinent to the scene. It's not driving the plot, it's just whatever they happen to be doing. Business is the kind of action that you don't have to put a lot of effort into motivating because the motivation is self-evident. Ephraim is making tea. Why? Because he wants tea. Tatiana is answering emails at her desk. Why? Because it's part of her job. Johann is playing the pipe-organ. Why? Because he's composing baroque concertos on it.

Business is a great resource. You can use it manage pacing and reinforce the emotional context of the dialog. Let's look at an example that I'm making up here on the fly. I have a character named Trudy who's going to say a line, pause for a beat, and then say something else. By itself, the exchange looks like this.


Trudy sipped at her tea. "I told Barry not to drive in this snow. His tires are bald. I told him so, told him he was going to get himself killed, but he wouldn't listen... Nobody ever listens to me."


And it's... fine. An ellipsis is a functional--if inelegant--way to insert a pause into a character's speech. We don't really have any insight into her state of mind, though. Is she sad? Angry? Glib? Resigned? It's anybody's guess. Because dialog is not just boring, it's vague.

I got to see a fun acting exercise years ago in my community theatre days. (Lo, my checkered past!) There were two pairs of actors each performing a scene. The first duo was playing a couple on their honeymoon. The second was a man helping out his brother who was really struggling physically because of the side-effects of chemotherapy. Two wildly different scenes with wildly different tones. The first was playful and flirty and suggestive. The second was morose, but also sweet and heartfelt. Here's the gimmick, though: both duos were using the exact same script. They weren't aware that they had the same script. The only difference was in the performance.

Character business is how you add that element of performance to your dialog. Let's look at that same passage, but see how it changes when we add just a little bit of business.


Trudy sipped at her tea. "I told Barry not to drive in this snow. His tires are bald. I told him so, told him he was going to get himself killed, but he wouldn't listen." She rotated the cup clumsily in her hand and then set it down with loud clank. "Nobody ever listens to me."


See the difference? The business gives us the pause. If we want a longer pause, make the business longer. Want a shorter one? Trim it down. Also, now we have some insight into her state of mind. She's upset. It's a really useful way to break up your dialog, and books are littered with this stuff. Seriously, pick up a book you like and find a chapter that's dialog-centric. Highlight narration in one color, thought in another, dialog in another, and all other action--that is, the character business--in another. You will find character business everywhere. Between dialog, within dialog, instead of dialog. Since it doesn't have to be explicitly motivated, it can be a great way to reveal character. This is probably a separate post--and I hope by now you've figured out that anytime I say this it's because I'm teasing the following week's entry--but character business can even replace description.

And since it doesn't actually matter to the plot, you can be real unsubtle with it. I once wrote a scene in which the POV character was talking to his controlling father. I knew I needed some character business for pacing purposes, so I decided to have the father be working on a model--meticulously painting a miniature replica of the very structure they were standing in. This also gave him a convenient excuse to never make eye contact or even look up towards his son at all. Like I said, real unsubtle.

It's important to recognize that this kind of thing is there in movies too, it's just less noticeable. Usually. As a rule, characters are doing stuff while they exposit at each other. Because movies and books work differently, the character business on film is primarily about giving the actor something to act against. As such, it sort of gets absorbed into their line delivery, because at the end of the day it's really just body language with props. But you do notice when it's absent. One of the many criticisms levleed at the Star Wars prequels was how bland the dialog scenes were. It's because they had nothing to do. It was just medium shots and reverse medium shots of two characters standing, or sitting, until at one point one of them walks to a window and then turns back dramatically to deliver the emotional fulcrum of the scene. It's wild how often this exact blocking shows up in those movies.

New writers absorb this and try to include character business in their own works, they're just using movies as a template. Because, again, they're not writing a novel so much as the novelization of the movie they want to someday have an executive producer credit on. Character business gets mentioned at the beginning of the scene and then never comes up again. Instead, they're relying on dialog alone to do the heavy lifting of the scene, and it doesn't work because it doesn't feel motivated. And it's vague. And boring. And it feels artificial. So it becomes very hard to take it seriously.

In sum, dialog should serve the character, not the reader. Keep that straight, and make sure your characters have something to do other than talk, and your dialog will feel a lot stronger. Because you'll be using it only for the things it's actually good at.

Next week, why you're doing description wrong...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.