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Making Dialogue Interesting

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Spider, Jun 18, 2013.

  1. Spider

    Spider Sage

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    In my WIP, one of my chapters consists of several characters talking for the majority of the time. How can I prevent this from getting boring without adding a lot of action?
     
  2. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Fill it with conflict and tension.

    Have characters' responses reflect their emotional interpretation of what was said instead of answering direct questions.

    Don't try to make it sound like real speech.

    Eliminate the boring parts like greetings.

    Make sure each line moves the story forward.

    Mix in beats in lieu of tags to convey a sense of motion.

    That should do as a start...
     
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  3. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    Often the interesting part of dialogue isn't what the characters say, but what they don't say.

    I think of it this way... When you wait for an elevator and ride it, most often nobody is talking. However, you get to know a lot about the people waiting. Are they impatient? Bored? In a pissy mood? Are they courteous? Over-courteous? Do they smell bad? Wear too much perfume? Are they fidgety? Nervous? Do they seem open and smiling, or are they closed off and trying to get as far away from everyone as possible?

    They say that 80% of human communication is non-verbal. The subtext of what people are really saying with their bodies versus what their mouths are doing is some of the most interesting stuff. Try to capture this in beats.
     
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  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Another one I like is misunderstanding. One character misinterprets what the other says. Or goes off on tangents. Or otherwise creates verbal conflict.

    One source to which I turn sometimes is old movies. The writing for movies starting in the late 1930s and running into the early 1950s was razor sharp. Watch how the characters twist and turn in their dialog rather than running in a straight line.

    Some more modern movies are good at it as well.

    Oh, and plays. Those are nice because you can read the script and take your time over how the dialog is constructed.
     
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  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Are you asking how to make your dialogue interesting, or are you asking how to make a dialogue heavy scene interesting?

    If you want to write dialogue like Tarantino or Whedon, well that's like asking how to be funny.

    But if you want to make a dialogue heavy scene interesting, IMHO you make what they're doing and their environment interesting. Don't just have your characters be sitting in a boring room. Use this opportunity to show the reader the world. Find the interesting places in your world and have the conversation happen there. If that's not possible have what they're doing be interesting. And like BWFoster said have it reflect emotions.

    Dialogue to me works on two levels, plot level and emotional level. Make sure the conversation doesn't only contain plot. Have it deal the emotional-personal elements of the character's lives because that is just as important, if not more important to them, than the plot. Eg. Han Solo cares about fighting the empire but he also cares to know how the princess feels about him. Given a choice, would he want to know one of the evil empire's secrets or one of hers?
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  6. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    Yes! Long conversations about politics didn't help the Star Wars prequels any. All they did was sit on sofas or walk through very pretty areas. Very Dull.

    Walking through a marketplace or castle halls can help add some interesting elements. They can interact with people here and there, see some sights, and it can lend some mood. If they are talking about something sensitive or secretive, they can pull away from the crowd and speak in hushed voices while they make certain points. Elements they see can feed the conversation. Let's say they are unhappy with the current king, one character can point out something in the streets that is distasteful or a sign of decay of the kingdom in their eyes. The things they each notice or get distracted by can tell much about their personalities.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Dialogue in a single room can be interesting, however. See 12 Angry Men.
     
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  8. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    Of course I agree. However, if you can write dialogue as gripping as in 12 Angry Men, you could do it in a white room with no windows and it would still be interesting!
     
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  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    True. Not easy to do, and it may be harder to pull off in written form. In the movie, you have the talents of the actors to rely on to bring the drama to life.
     
  10. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Your question inspired my blog post today. You can see it at:

    Dialogue That Drives the Story | Brian W. Foster

    You should feel so honored :)
     
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  11. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    Great blog post. It was informative and seasoned with funny, Bravo.

    I've got a desire to call someone a "jerkface"...
     
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  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I can only hope it's not me...
     
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  13. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    Here's another side to dialog: what's it change? Are there enough things the scenes can change?

    More dialog scenes than not seem to be written as "people talking toward what they already have to do." They'll exposit about what's ahead and how recent events make it necessary, and beside the facts they'll do some "aft/anny" (aftermath and anticipation) of their feelings about what they've just been through and what's coming, and of course reveal their personalities and backgrounds in how they view things, airing their conflicts and so on. Or they'll do some of the same thing about their surroundings or a topic that comes up, for characterization again.

    That is, more scenes than not aren't conceived as plot moments, but something that fits between or builds up to those moments. I like a good scene that deepens our sense of who's there. But that's still a lot of scenes where nothing really changes in them.

    Take the classic "personality clash" scene. In a good story the next few scenes or more will take that friction into account; in a decent one it's at least convincing when people talk themselves back to a truce. But at least sometimes, couldn't one guy end up leaving the group, starting a fight, hint at a Really Interesting Secret, or changing his deal about how much he'll help the others?

    (Yes, realistically most talk isn't life-changing. But, part of storytelling is to give moments a better ratio of signal to noise, isn't it? Besides, if what results from a conversation surprises the reader, it's like with suspense: startle the reader even once and he'll stop taking "quiet moments" for granted.)

    I'd say it comes down to finding ways relationships can change (lots of ways, to drive a few more of these scenes), and sometimes in ways that are tangible for the story-- dialog for characterization is good, but it's nice when sometimes it has something more at stake. We talk about scenes and dialog "advancing the story or the characters," but this tests whether that advancement is more rooted sometimes.

    Without more of those stakes, dialog has the same relationship to the story as filler. Which isn't to say it is filler or can't be great stuff, some of the most beloved scenes or the ones that do the most to make everything else work. But some dialog scenes, some, could do something more concrete.
     
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  14. Spider

    Spider Sage

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  15. Spider

    Spider Sage

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    The sky is blue.
     
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  16. JSDR

    JSDR Scribe

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    Hey Spider!
    I love dialogue-heavy scenes.

    I did a module on editing dialogue scenes on my blog a few weeks ago.

    I think...Work In Progress: Dialogue Part 3 might be a good place to start. Might want to look at part 4 also, where I put a lot of things together to show how tweaking little things can improve the entire scene.

    Some highlights:
    1. The classic "Avoid constantly referring to the characters by name" explanation.
    2. Creating and maintaining tension by using developed characters.
    3. Answer without answering.

    HTH,
    J
     
  17. Sheriff Woody

    Sheriff Woody Troubadour

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    I agree. One of the greatest films ever made.

    In fact, plenty of older films that didn't have action or special effects had to rely strictly on storytelling and dialogue to keep people entertained.

    Watch older films and you will see. Anything from Billy Wilder will do. Hitchcock, as well. But the best dialogue I've ever heard in a movie is from the forgotten classic Sweet Smell of Success.

    "The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man."
    "It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."
    "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."
    "Everybody knows Manny Davis - except Mrs. Manny Davis."
    "My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in thirty years."
    "Don't do anything I wouldn't do. That gives you a lot of leeway."
    "
    You're walking around blind, Frank, without a cane."
    "Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance, "to promise.""

    More quotes than one could even hope to remember.

    And what do all these films and dialogue scenes have in common?

    Conflict.
     
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  18. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

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    One technique to liven up dialog (or information laden) scenes is what in screenwriting is sometimes called "Pope in the pool":
    When you need characters to talk about something - let's say one needs to give another a briefing about a mission - you can help keep the reader's attention by putting the scene in an interesting place (as otheres have mentioned here).
    Pope in the Pool specifically named after a movie where the MC needs to be briefed about his mission by the pope... which could be a rather slow scene at the start of a movie. But the MC meets the pope, in the vatican, in the pope's private pool. The pope explains the mission while swimming laps. You have two things going on here: the information the reader/viewer will need later on is given AND the reader/viewer is carried through the whole scene by the simple surprise of the idea of the pope in the pool.
     
  19. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    HEY, did you get that from the Save the Cat screen writing book? That's one of my favorites :D
     
  20. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

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    I did. And yes, it is such a great book, all the way down to the title! (I'm still working on an inversion of the save the cat idea...)
     
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