Good Dialogue: Balancing Realism and Awesomeness
Some people will tell you that good dialogue is realistic. Those people are barely half right on a good day. Good dialogue is a delicate balance between what’s realistic, what’s dramatic, and what’s just plain awesome.
So how does that work?Balancing Realism and Drama
You need dialogue to seem realistic and to sound like we imagine people talking. That means slang, abbreviations, incomplete sentences, and touches of humor and awkwardness.
But that’s not the same as how people really talk. Any real conversation involves a bunch of repetitions, hesitations, and “er, hm” moments that just clutter up the scene. So throw in some realism, but don’t go too far.
Aaron Sorkin is famous for this. His dialogue seems realistic because characters interrupt and talk over each other, like in real life. But it’s hyper-reality, in which every word is cool, coherent and awesome.
Speaking of awesome, snappy one-liners and killer comebacks will make your dialogue memorable and grab attention, so throw in a few. But don’t use a whole bucketful — the more you have, the more obvious it will be that this isn’t real people talking.
The same goes for drama. This lies largely in the structure, so is easier to hide. Skip over the awkward fifteen minutes of developing a real plan, and cut to the summary. Have people interrupt each other at the perfect moment to add conflict and tension to the scene without hiding meaning. Have people join in at the perfectly dramatic right (or wrong) moment.
Structure for drama and use details for realism and awesomeness.Voices: Being Consistent and Characterful
One of the most important things to do in good dialogue is to make the characters distinctive. Give each one particular phrases or ways of talking. These can be obvious, like Marvel comics’ robot bounty hunter Death’s Head, who ends many sentences with “yes?” They can be more subtle, like having a character use short sentences or ask a lot of questions. The character can be favoring long words, or plainer sounding ones with an Anglo-Saxon root.
If each character has distinctive verbal tics then they’ll stand out, making the dialogue clearer, more real and more dramatic. But be careful not to overdo it. Even Death’s Head doesn’t use his distinctive “yes?” as often on the page as readers remember, and only gets away with it because he’s not a totally serious character. Over use any element and the character will seem absurd.Some Examples
It’s easier to show how this works through bad examples than good ones. So let’s look at a few (that I’ve invented — no real authors were hurt in the making of this article)…
“As you know, Gilbert, Ragaton was once home to an ancient witch who…”
Any sentence that starts “as you know” is a stinker. Using this to tell readers story background is neither dramatic nor realistic — only the most tedious people tell us what we already know. If I want them to talk about the witch, I’ll have to imply her existence:
“Is that poster meant to show the Ragaton Witch? It looks almost as ancient and wrinkled as she was.”
It’s not perfect, but it hints at the character’s snobby attitude and deep familiarity with the witch, while implying her existence.
How about a little back and forth:
“Why did you do it, Rusko?”
“I’m not telling.”
“Tell me or I’ll beat you.”
“Still not telling.”
That’s one way to take the drama out of an interrogation, and the realism - people don’t just answer questions directly, and the interrogator is being too on the nose. So instead:
“Why did you do it, Rusko?”
“Why are you such a fat pig, Cole? You’re like one of them big sows, rolling around in the—”
“You want to meet my friend Mr. Lead Pipe?”
“You want to go to Hell?”
Now Rusko’s fighting back with his words, “Mr. Lead Pipe” has shown Cole’s twisted sense of humor, and they’re both being a little bit more dramatic and characterful.
Good dialogue strikes that balance of realism and drama, as well as showing character. It’s not just nice to have. It’s vital.
A.G. Wyatt is the author of the post-apocalyptic adventure series, MoonFall, and is presently working on his second series. When he's not writing, he's reading, or looking for inspiration near his hometown in Northeastern PA.
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