What First Dates can Teach You About Writing Dialogue

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

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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.

Cultural interjections

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!”

Professional Jargon

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.

Personality Type

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.

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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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

16 thoughts on “What First Dates can Teach You About Writing Dialogue”

  1. Another fascinating post. That thing about writer’s eavesdropping reminds me of John Le Carre’s quote (you may have read it before): “It is part of a writer’s profession, as it’s part of a spy’s profession, to prey on the community to which he’s attached, to take away information – often in secret – and to translate that into intelligence for his masters, whether it’s his readership or his spy masters. And I think that both professions are perhaps rather lonely.”
    Your advice on dialogue was inspirational, especially your suggested device about inventing idioms and colloquialisms to make your writing timeless. I’m reading John Fowles ‘The Magus’ at present, which is a remarkable book in all sorts of ways. The way he uses dialogue to advance the plot, reveal things via subtext – basically all those observations you describe – is a lesson in masterful writing.
    Thanks again for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ll add The Magus to my every expanding list of books I need to check out.

      There are a lot of parallels between spies and writers. Thieves and assassins too.

      I should’ve mentioned this, but the article was long enough already, I’ve been noticing how economical graphic novels are with dialogue. Not only is it concise, but it’s used to fill in traveling sequences and keep the pace going. I imagine I might write an article on what graphic novels can teach narrative writers some day.

      Thanks so much for checking this out and leaving a comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “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 key to me at the moment, Drew. One of the main criticisms of the recent professional edit I had done on my MS was my over-use and over-reliance on dialogue. (Probably because I’m a complete chatterbox in life!) So I’m currently re-writing and having to really focus on this rule you highlight here. With hindsight I was definitely expressing my characters through their dialogue and depending on that as a vehicle far too much, but without the professional edit I couldn’t see that. I will be bearing your words above in mind as I go back again and work through this aspect of my writing.

    A timely post for me. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m in the 2nd draft of my novel and I’ve noticed areas where I relied too heavily on dialogue and other areas where things would have flowed smoother had I used dialogue instead of internal monologue. It’s a balancing act.

      The real trick is to find more moments that are not about what the characters are actually saying but what they mean. I’ve heard that kids like subtext. It’s the hip new craze 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “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”.

    I guess that pretty much sums it all up… particularly if we keep in mind the fact that silence could pretty much work as saying the opposite of what one could mean, at least in a subconscious way…

    And… in this point of the assessment I’ll have to bring back that eloquent proposal which was never spoken out/up… i.e, quoting you, again: “Would you like to copulate and imagine what our offspring would look like, or just copulate for recreation’s sake?”… 😆😂
    Great post, Drew… thanks and best wishes to you. Aquileana ⭐️

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I tend to be conversational and chatty. But that’s mostly in essays / columns…stuff like that. Some micro fiction. When you mentioned the characters being “too damn witty”, it made me think of Gilmore Girls. (Which I loved, btw.) They pulled it off, somehow, but they were unique in that way. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer in part because the dialogue is so quippy and fun. I think that works well when you have a gang of teens in a heightened reality… but I still maintain one or two of the characters should get the punchiest lines while the supporting cast plays it straight. I think for TV shows like the Gilmore Girls you get used to that dialogue over time.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Drew, the interesting observation about listening to two people trying to hook up is that they are demonstrating a type of relationship. Of course, all conversation is moulded by a relationship of some description or another, whether that is an established relationship or a new one.

    Part of the key to writing dialogue is understanding that relationship and limiting yourself to it. You would very rarely ask the postman about his wife/dog/income if you have never met him and so it would be odd for those casual comments to appear in the dialogue.

    Equally, one also needs to understand the relationship of the characters to their environment, the scene, as this will also affect the dialogue. If they are in familiar territory, their language use will probably be more relaxed, for instance.

    Dialogue, and duologue in particular, is fun and that is where I really get my kicks when writing.

    http://cchogan.com/writing-dialogue/ – this is my take.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the most timely advice ever! ^-^ I’m just now starting to edit a novella that I finished in January, which is super dialogue heavy. Mainly because it takes place in a confined space that the characters can’t really leave. I think the dialog has been the thing I’ve been dreading the most when it comes to editing. After reading your post, the process seems less dubious… although I am still going to put it off till after beta-reader feedback. XD

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You’re killing it lately, Drew.

    Side note: “… embarrassing exchanges, awkward over-shares, and ironic utterances” reminds me once again that you not only write and write about writing, you … well, you got mad skillz. So many people try to do things like alliterate, but it’s too obvious. Here, you’ve provided a good reminder that vowels always alliterate, regardless of which ones.

    You’ve also been waxing rather wise, lately (e.g., “The real trick is to find more moments that are not about what the characters are actually saying but what they mean.”) This isn’t just a great writers’ tip – it’s a great LIFE tip.

    And I just want to point out … it’s terrific to read everyone’s comments and realize that you aren’t just blogging; you’re actually helping real people do what they do better, in a timely fashion. It’s always rewarding to realize that your writing has purpose, and yours certainly does in spades.

    Liked by 1 person

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