Dialogue Rules

(This blog is about fiction-writing techniques and is a departure from my usual subject-matter. If this isn’t of interest, feel free to skip until next time!)

One of the things I particularly struggle with in fiction writing is dialogue. Considering how much of our lives we spend blabbing to each other, it doesn’t seem like it should be hard to create realistic dialogue on the page… but it is.

Often dialogue ends up being pedestrian – that is to say, it is too realistic (because most of the words we speak in our daily lives are not quite up to the sparkling standards of book banter) – which causes stagnation in the story.

Or it’s too “on the nose,” with people getting straight to the point in plain language in a way that never quite seems to happen in real life.

And not only does the dialogue have to be interesting and feel realistic… it also has to move the story forward.

Since it’s National Novel Writing Month, it seemed like a good time to think about some techniques to solve these problems.

Note: this post, and several of these techniques, were inspired by watching The Newsroom; the quoted examples come from there.

Can a Character Say Something by Saying the Opposite?

This one is a fairly simple one. Sarcasm falls under this category, but it doesn’t have to be sarcastic. You could have a character say, in a serious, this-is-important manner:

“Jim, since the day you started working here I’ve never felt the need to remind you about confidentiality, and I don’t feel the need now.”

Embrace Tangents.

Sloan has just messed up badly during a broadcast about the Fukushima disaster and has been suspended as a result. Don sees her in her office and comes in.
Sloan: If you’re here to make me feel better, it’s not necessary.
Don: You think I’m here to make you feel better?
Sloan: The story is right. In this one case, I don’t give a damn about on the record, off the record. And no one in Fukushima does either.
Don: I do.
Sloan: The story is right.
Don: His spokesman denied it on the air.
Sloan: He said it to me.
Don: And you got proof of that I can bounce off our satellite?
Sloan: No.
Don: Is Maggie into Jim?
Sloan: … we’re talking about radia– What?
Don: Am I losing Maggie?

I often think I need to find a way to get to a subject naturally. But the fact is, conversations take sudden left-hand turns all the time. This is because conversations do not actually follow a single logical thread; instead, they are what happens when two (or more) different lines of thought collide.

This works out in a few different ways:

I Know, Right?
Sometimes the lines of thought are very similar, so neither exerts much pull on the direction and the conversation does progress in a fairly straight line. These are the conversations which will be full of lines like, “Absolutely!” and, “I know! How do people not understand that?!”

From A to Q
Each person draws from their own experience, and the connections between ideas that exist in their head are different from the connections between ideas in anybody else’s head. So, say a guy is talking about a proposed camping trip for the next weekend.

His girlfriend might react to this on a surface level – “Yes! Let’s go!” – or on a more logistical “Ok, but we have to take x into consideration” level.

Or she might tell him about a bad camping experience she had in the past (which is why she doesn’t want to go now, or wants to do a certain thing differently), or some word in the conversation might remind her “Oh! I heard the funniest story from Susie yesterday!” (which may or may not have anything to do with camping).

Or camping leads to thinking about bear safety which reminds her of an article she read about wildlife tracking in national parks. Possibly the train of thought exits her mouth there, or maybe it gets her thinking about the dangers posed by different wild animals and what she blurts out is, “Would you rather be attacked by a grizzly bear or a lion?” – much to the confusion of her boyfriend, who was in the middle of discussing which weight sleeping bag they would need.

It looks like a left turn to him and – if you haven’t explained her line of thought – it looks like a left turn on the page, but it isn’t. It’s a natural meander.

What’s Important to Me
A related but different phenomenon: people want to talk about the things that are weighing on their minds. They might do this in subtle ways or they might just come out and say it (as in the Jim & Sloan example above), but a person who really wants to talk about a particular thing will usually find a way to work the conversation around to it. They might do this even if they think they don’t want to talk about it.

Not to mention, sometimes people just want to change the subject. A real-life example from our recent vacation: “Speaking of placenta, those tri tip mushrooms are amazing.” (Disclaimer because you know somebody will ask: there was no connection between placenta and the mushrooms.)

How could you use these in your story? What would each say about your characters?

Don’t Be Logical.

Conversely, people often aren’t logical. Don’t feel like your characters always have to be.

Say Everything But The Essential Thing.

The bigger and more important the thing to be said, the more most people will be afraid of saying it, hesitate at the crucial moment, and perhaps never say it at all. However, this is the most common cause of people screaming at their televisions, “Just tell him/her already!!” – which is probably not the desired result, so employ this technique with caution.

That’s actually not what I’m mostly suggesting by this tip, though. I’m suggesting that you find the thing that is So Completely Self-Evident to your character that it never crosses their mind to explain “this is the premise everything I’m saying is founded on.” If the other characters don’t instinctively understand that the speaker holds that premise, they’re guaranteed to be confused. It’s even possible to have your characters argue about things they actually agree on – because they assume a different premise is being used than the one that actually is, and they don’t realize they agree. It’s also a good way to ruin plans, since the Self-Evident thing is often a contingency (“we’ll only do this if x has already happened”).

Or perhaps there are reasons why the thing can’t be said. Don wants to set up Lisa with Jim. Maggie doesn’t want this, because she likes Jim, but can’t say it because she’s dating Don. I think they’re all utterly stupid for not breaking up with their respective boy/girlfriends and being with who they want to be with, but… the situation produces this (abbreviated) example of the entirely characteristic drain-circling that often occurs in these situations:

(The other essential thing to understand in this scene is that Lisa is Maggie’s best friend, and Lisa knows that Maggie likes Jim. So, notice how once she catches on she abruptly switches from being cautiously interested to trying to evade the fix-up with fake excuses.)
Don: So, I’ve got a guy for you.
Maggie: No, you don’t.
Lisa: A guy here?
Don: Yeah.
Maggie: No.
Lisa: Is it another loser that doesn’t have a date on New Year’s Eve?
Don: He’s not a loser.
Maggie: Yes, he’s a huge loser.
Lisa: What the hell is going on?
Don: What the hell is going on?

Don: You see the guy over there? The cute, sweet-looking puppy dog guy – with the stupid look on his face?
Lisa: He is cute. Why is he working?
Maggie: He has a job.
Don: So right there, he’s a leg up on your usual diet. His name’s Jim Harper….
Lisa: I’m sure he’s nice, but I don’t think I’m in the mood for a fix-up.
Don: Why not?
Lisa: I don’t know, I’m just coming off a relationship.
Don: Of 10 days. I bought milk before your relationship started – that was still good to drink after it ended.
Maggie: She doesn’t need to be fixed up, honey.
Don: I didn’t say that she needed to be fixed up.
Lisa: Besides, I’m not his type. I can tell.
Don: You’re everybody’s type. You’re the girl next door. Let’s go.

Don: [to Jim] So why don’t you take Lisa out onto the terrace…?
Maggie: Jim has to work.
Don: Not at 11:50 on New Year’s Eve. Grab some coats.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this approach work – trying to give any reason but the real one. But people do it all the time.

Either way, conversations in which this happens have a tendency to spiral into Every. Other. Possible. Misunderstanding. which could happen in a given relationship before the characters catch on to why it’s happening and untangle it. The dramatic possibilities are endless.

Actually, it strikes me that it could be a really good exercise to treat this like a game of Taboo. What is the thing your character really needs to say? That’s Taboo. Now how can they try to get the point across without saying it or any synonym of it? And what crazy guesses will the other player(s) make about what they’re trying to say?


I’m sure there are a lot of other techniques as well. What are some that I haven’t thought of? Which of these is your favorite?

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