“If you have a good ear for dialogue, you just can’t help thinking about the way people talk. You’re drawn to it. And the obsessive interest in it forces you to develop it. You almost can’t help yourself.” –Robert Towne
When we follow the labyrinth of most conversations, we discover one constant: people are always trying to get what they want. This doesn’t mean that characters are always clear in articulating their desires, or that they’re being truthful, or that they even understand each other. The surest way to kill the aliveness of our characters is by insisting they make sense.
The Purpose of Dialogue is to Reflect the Life and Death Stakes for our Characters
Amidst the most mundane exchange is a yearning for something more. By staying connected to our characters’ driving wants, their speech reflects an attempt to achieve these desires. Dialogue isn’t linear, nor is it logical. With each attempt, our characters are met with antagonistic forces. The tension builds through the scene as each character attempts to realize their goal.
If your prose feels wooden or transparent, as if you’re just trying to move the story forward, ask yourself what the characters want.
The playwright Harold Pinter wrote elegant human studies that mined the world of the unspoken. At first glance, his plays read as banal conversations. Upon further investigation, beneath the thin veneer of civility live tectonic shifts, life and death struggles.
If you’re going back through your first draft and find a scene isn’t working, here’s a quick way to get things moving: pull out a fresh sheet of paper and write a stream-of-consciousness dialogue between two characters. Write it quickly. Surprise yourself with what the characters really want to say. It’s often in the rewrite that dialogue comes alive. We have a little more security with our structure, a deeper sense of what our story is about, and we can loosen the reins.
Language is a Means of Communicating Desire
Whether it’s to be seen and heard, to gain sympathy, to curry favor, to get information, to feel close, to punish, to find love, to hurt, to destroy, to reassure, to secure a position — we speak in an attempt to get something.
But here’s the thing: we rarely come out and say what we really want, because within every scene is an antagonistic force. Our characters all have something at stake. In real life, people rarely say what they think and feel. Why would we expect our characters to do this? Until we get out of the way, our characters are all going to sound like us.
Great dialogue contains tension. It understands what is at stake, and it walks that line. Great dialogue is specific. A single line can tell us a great deal about a character. Here’s a quick example:
I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while. “How’s life?” I asked.
He sighed. “I want a car with a door that opens on the driver’s side.”
One last thing. Our characters don’t have to speak. If they don’t want anything, keep them quiet until they tell you their heart’s desire.