By Carrie Conner
Oh, I could spend my life having this conversation –
look – please try to understand before one of us dies.
– John Cleese
What was the last piece of writing that seduced you?
You know, the one that hooked you late into the night until you fought to keep your eyes open and your partner again asked, “Could you turn out the light, for God’s sake?” and like a good junkie you said you would but were really thinking, just one more page.
It’s not your fault. You were lulled into the rhythm of brilliant narrative. Who of us hasn’t been there, longing to hold readers rapt with our own stories?
Well-crafted dialogue transports readers into the story. When it is working, we know it immediately. It goes undetected. When it’s not working … well, it’s like introducing your new date to crazy Aunt Agnes who shows up for dinner with smeared coral lipstick and her wig on backward.
The problem is, great dialogue is tricky. Knowing why or how great dialogue works is about as easy as predicting the weather in Topeka during tornado season. If we wrote the way we actually speak, our pages would be filled with “uhms,” grunts, incomplete sentences and random topic changes. So, we get to make our characters smarter than real-life people – or at least more succinct. Authentic dialogue walks the tightrope between reality and artistic license.
Fortunately, we have some guidelines. If you look back through any writing you love, you’ll see the dialogue shares at least three elements:
- Moves the story forward
- Reveals something about the character
- Has a distinctive voice for each character
Seamless dialogue helps flesh out our characters. Their choice of words reveals where they live, their age, sex, personality, education, religion … so choose wisely.
Our characters never have to wake up with, “Why didn’t I think to say that?” Or regret they had said anything. They get to say the perfect thing at the perfect time.
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” – The Princess Bride (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
In three short sentences we know who is speaking, a pivotal event in his history and his motivation. And we want more.
As we want, so do our characters. Unless you are as enlightened as the Dalai Lama, we thinking humans are natural wanting machines: wanting to be loved, understood and to feel safe is universal. Wanting creates tension. Tension creates conflict. Conflict creates a story you can’t put down.
Kurt Vonnegut knew this when he gave advice on writing dialogue. He said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
Now, think of two people you know well. They can be real, imaginary or even yourself. Give each a want. As fast as you can, write one full page using dialogue-only to create a scene of conflict between two characters. Don’t worry about quote attributions or any beats of action yet. Allow the conversation to flow stream-of-consciousness style. Just get it down on paper. When you have filled the page, reread your conversation and take out or rewrite any part that does not meet the three dialogue criteria. Finally, read it aloud.
See if you can distinguish who is speaking only from their words, keeping in mind the wise words of Mark Twain, “A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.”
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An Invitation from VoiceCatcher
Willing to share what this prompt inspires you to write? Each month we might publish some responses to the VoiceCatcher prompts. Contact us to submit the writing the prompt elicits from you.
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A friend once asked Carrie Conner why she writes. “Because I have to,” she said. “You mean like publish or perish?” he asked. “No,” she said, “It’s more like … breathing.” Carrie has spent 20 years as a staff and features journalist and freelance copywriter for a variety of publications and companies. One day, while interviewing an emerging novelist about her new book release, she realized she was done writing about other people’s accomplishments. She’s currently putting together a yet-untitled collection of short stories and a screenplay.