When you want extra anchovies on your pizza you ask the person on the other end of the phone. When you want a pair of acid wash pre-frayed jeans you ask a clerk where to find them. When you want a tall non-fat half caff Latte you ask a barista for one.
When you want love you don’t just ask the person you’re attracted to. There’s a dance to romance. You don’t say, “I couldn’t help but notice that your face was symmetrical and the proportions of your body are agreeable. I like how your loose garments reveal your good genetics. Would you like to copulate and imagine what our offspring would look like, or just copulate for recreation’s sake?”
That’s a little too on the nose.
If you’re asking for love you have to be subtle, to communicate your interest without laying it on too thick, to convey your desire without frightening the person you admire. You need to get the ball rolling and see if the other person feels like passing it back. You need to gage interest.
If you’re a writer studying dialogue, do yourself a favor: go to where lovers congregate and listen in. Coffeeshop counters are prime real-estate for eavesdropping on Tinder dates. Lustful lovers have a habit of projecting their words for all to hear. They’re generous donors for we quote bookers, collecting embarrassing exchanges, awkward over-shares, and ironic utterances.
If you’re lucky you’ll sit next to a date where the interest is off balance, where both parties want to make the best of the situation, but one is all in while the other is looking for a polite place to exist. Pay close attention to the asymmetric social graces, the off-balanced banter, and the frugal flirting. There’s subtext between these lines, things that neither party are aware they’re revealing.
If one member of a date talks too much they may be overcompensating because they see the other as more attractive. On the other hand, the pair could be in complete disagreement about something, but mirroring one another’s posture, which could mean they have a difference of opinion, but a mutual interest. When you’re eavesdropping it’s important to listen and look.
Couples on first dates are a walking masterclasses in subtext, because what they say doesn’t matter as much as what they imply. Their dialogue is a story with a beginning middle and an end, and like all good stories their conversation is building to something.
First dates should have you thinking about what all good dialogue requires.
What Purposes Dialogue Must Serve
In real life we say things without composing them. We use filler words like “Like, uh” and “um.” We trip on our tongues and forget what we were talking about. Dialogue in stories needs to be much more efficient. It should sound natural but not conversational, structured but not calculated, witty but not chatty.
Characters in movies speak in quick short sentences (unless they’re monologuing) because film is a visual medium. It shows instead of tells. Books don’t have the same time constraints as films, but they need to hold readers’ interest. That’s why dialogue should:
- Reveal Character
- Propel the Plot Forward
- Set the tone of the Story (or the scene)
- and Reveal Offscreen Information
Dialogue reveals character through:
Age appropriate lingo
Teens on a date lay the lingo on thick to show they’re in each others’ click. As a writer, you could try to transcribe their wordplay, but you’re better off following their speech patterns. Teenage lingo changes so fast that it’s passé by the time you put it on the page. That’s why it’s important your young characters’ speak with the rhythm of teenagers without depending on this season’s slang. If you’re a YA writer create your own contemporary coded language, internal idioms, and inside jokes for your characters.
The movie Brick does this really well. It’s a high school mystery where all the characters talk like characters in a black and white noir. Once we hear the characters use their terms in context we know that “Bulls” means “Cops,” “Clam” means “Keep your mouth shut,” and “Heel” means “Turn tail and run.”
Lingo isn’t always environmental. So much of my mine comes from the media I consume. I like to play with time honored pop culture references without getting too obscure.
If your characters grew up in multi lingual households they might express their exasperation in their parents’ tongue. Sometimes they pick up on phrase unique to the region they grew up in. Here in Minnesota we say, “Uff da.” when we throw our hands up in disbelief. Your characters might say, “Oy vey,” “Sacrebleu,” or “¡Ay, caramba!”
If one of your characters is a lawyer, but none of your scenes take place in a courtroom, you’re still going to need to study a legal glossary to get a flavor for the jargon they could drop into casual conversation.
On a first date your lawyer might use an obscure latin expression. Imagine your characters are in a club and a creep is grinding on girls as they pass. The lawyer might say, “Now that’s Mala in se.” before confronting the creep.
Mala in se is a legal term that means something is wrong in and of itself, something like murder, but in your story the lawyer might say this in reference to someone acting sleazy.
English speakers can get by with a mere 200 words. College students use 3,000 to 5,000 words, but professionals will have upwards of 7,000 words. Odds are they’re going to pepper in some of those fifty-cent buzzwords into their daily speech patterns.
Great stories show characters change, but one of the things that stays the same is their speech patterns. A character’s journey can change their outlook, but not their voice. Han Solo is a witty scoundrel at the beginning of Star Wars, though he evolves by the end, his redemption takes none of the wit out of him.
People with different personalities will express the same needs in different ways. Listen to people on first dates try to sell themselves. Not everyone brags about their accomplishments in the same way. Some people are overt narcissists, listing their achievements like they’re hip hop artists. Others downplay things, while others humble brag like they need their egos drawn out of them. Our need for validation is universal, but the manner we express that need is unique to us.
How Dialogue Sets the Tone
The first conversation in your story will let us know if your story is quirky or cold and serious. Dialogue also sets the tone of the scene. High tension will limit your characters’ vocabulary while a calm situation will expand it.
How Dialogue Reveals Offscreen Information
While dialogue is fun to write it needs to keep things moving. In movies dialogue relays things that happen offscreen in a way that’s faster than showing them. In fiction dialogue is a great tool for lowering your word count. If you have a scene that stretches on, wasn’t fun to write, isn’t fun to read, but is essential to the plot, try putting a condensed version of it in a character’s mouth. You can use dialogue to convey past events to avoid resorting to flashbacks.
Something I noticed when I was a script reader was that too many characters were too damn witty. Their dialogue was so punchy that it pulled me out of the story. Everyone was on all the time. Every other line was a one liner. Everyone was so cool that it broke my suspension of disbelief. If every gas station clerk with a walk on role is as clever as all the other characters your dialogue will sound inorganic. Save your their sparkling wit for the right moments so they truly stand out.
If a character conveys information that’s apparent to everyone the line is on the nose. Sometimes characters need to say things that are the opposite of what they mean. Sometimes the subtext between the lines says more about them than they’d dare share.
Dialogue that doesn’t reveal character, move the story forward, set the tone, or convey past events shouldn’t be there. The best dialogue serves more than one of these purposes. Don’t depend on dialogue to express your characters. Remember actions speak louder than words.
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.