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Monday, January 23, 2017

Writing Realistic and Complex Dialogue


Anonymous asked: Hi! Congrats for your blog. I think your posts are very interesting :) How do yo write realistic and complex dialogues? Thank you!



Hi and thank you! ^_^

Great question. I used to be pretty clueless about what made good dialogue. I even bought two books on dialogue, and they were helpful, but didn’t give me the answers or depth I was looking for. They were more about the basics. I’ve tried to study dialogue over the years and I’ll share what I know. This is assuming you already know the basics. If not, or you need a refresher, here are some great articles:

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part 1)
Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part 2)

To be honest, I don’t agree with everything in those articles, but I agree with 99% of it and all of those points are what you will hear taught in the writing world. But here are more tips beyond that:


-Beyond the Basics-

(Don’t) Tell Me How You Really Feel

In Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, Stern notes:

“Advice about dialogue generally starts with discussing what your characters say. It might be better to start off with what your characters don’t say and the way they don’t….the more intense the feelings, the more likely people are to say the opposite of what they really mean. If you want to keep a high level of tension, keep the dialogue evasive, filled with suppressed information and unstated emotion.”

He also says that how a character sits, stands, fidgets, pauses, or adverts eyes can be as important as his or her words.

Three examples of narratives that follow Stern’s advice are The Office,The Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings, and I have those example here. (It looks like the first video no longer works, but the other stuff is there).


-Intermediate-

Character Voice
Dialogue is influenced by character voice. They aren’t the same thing, but they definitely relate.
Voice is made up of two things–what the character talks about, and how she says it. In other words:

What the Character Talks about + How She Says it = Voice

Voice is its own thing, but you can learn how to master it better in these articles I wrote.
What You Need to Know Most About Character Voice
What Else You Need to Know Most About Character Voice


- Advanced -
Subtext
Without a doubt I have found that subtext is one of the biggest keys to writing killer dialogue, if not the biggest. It relates to what I touched on earlier–what’s not said and the way it’s not. And yet it’s so much more! Subtext makes dialogue both complex and realistic. It’s definitely a challenge to learn and gain control of, but it’s so worth it. Uugh, I am a huge fan of subtext now!
It would take too long to include everything about subtext here, but luckily I have an entire article about what it is, how it works, and how to do it:

How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)

Mastering this alone will take your dialogue to the next level.

Other than subtext, there are a few other techniques that can really make your dialogue awesome, and you can read and learn about them in depth here. But in short:

Mini Context ShiftsA context shift usually happens when new information enters the story that changes our understanding of what is going on. It can also happen when a character reacts to information a certain way. Their reaction gives us a new context to view things through. You can have characters use mini context shifts in their conversations. For example, from Interstellar:

Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, “Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.” I think I understand now what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn’t exist.

Context shift: Cooper is talking about a metaphorical ghost, but Murph’s response shifts the context to a literal ghost (the one in her room), and by doing that, in her anger, she’s able to throw what Cooper said earlier about ghosts in his face.

Cooper: That’s right, Murph. Look at me. I can’t be your ghost right now. I need to exist.

Context shift: Instead of becoming a victim to Murph’s tactics, Cooper seizes the new context, and shifts it again to the metaphorical, building on his own previous words for his benefit. “That’s right … . I need to exist.”


Character Circuitry 
In the last example, Cooper and Murph create circuitry in their conversation by taking, responding, and building off one another’s words. You can’t take their lines and rearrange them, because each exchange is building off the other. They have circuitry.

I know that some people might read that and go “Duh! Of course they respond to one another. It’s a conversation!”

Responding is one thing, but building off it for a stronger, more interesting, more entertaining effect is another.  For example:

Just responding:
Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, “Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.” I think I understand now what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
Murph: Dad, don’t go.
Cooper: I have to, Murph.
Murph: The books say “stay,” Dad.
Cooper: I’ve got to go.

Building:
Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, “Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.” I think I understand now what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn’t exist.
Cooper: That’s right, Murph. Look at me. I can’t be your ghost right now. I need to exist. They chose me. Murph, They chose me. You saw it. You’re the one who led me to them.
Murph: That’s exactly why you can’t go. I figured out the message. One word. Know what it is?

By having the characters building on what the other said, we get stronger circuitry.

Bring Back Old Lines
Like all writing rules, taking them to the extreme is overkill, so this is one in particular you don’t want to do with everything. Just one, two, or three things. But audiences love it when we bring back old lines.

It happens beautifully in Harry and the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry’s punishment is to write lines (“I must not tell lies”) during his detention with Umbridge. At the end of the movie, the centaurs attack Umbridge.

Umbridge: Potter, do something! Tell them I mean no harm.

Harry: I’m sorry, Professor, but I must not tell lies.

One Step Ahead
Witty dialogue has a buzz to it too. I noticed in Interstellar that the writers created wit by having the characters be one step ahead of the audience or another character.

Cooper: Honesty, new setting. Ninety-five percent.
TARS: Confirmed. Additional customization?
Cooper: Humor: Seventy-five percent.
TARS: Confirmed. Auto self destruct T minus, ten, nine…
Cooper: Let’s make that sixty-percent.
TARS: Sixty percent confirmed. Knock, knock.
Cooper: You want fifty-five?

In this example, Cooper is one step ahead of the audience. “Knock, knock” isn’t a type of joke being told by a robot with 60% humor. The fact Tars is telling a knock knock joke is the joke. Tars is being a smart alec, saying, “Hey look, my humor level has been dumbed down so much, I’m doing stupid knock knock jokes!” The Nolans are making a joke via a joke. But we don’t know this until Cooper’s response gives us the context. “You want fifty-five” clues us into the real joke and we laugh. Cooper is one step ahead.


Quotable
When the movie Avatar came out, I was listening to a professional writer talk about it. He mentioned that the dialogue in it wasn’t very good. He said that for example “There was not one quotable line in that whole movie.”

My first reaction was disbelief. There had to be a quotable line somewhere. So I racked my mind.
I had nothing.

I could not think of a single good line. I couldn’t remember anyone who’d seen it quoting lines. The only thing that came to mind was “unobtainium,” a term that my brother and I still laugh about.
While I’m sure that there are fans who would be able to quote some lines. this writer had a point. There weren’t any lines that begged to be quoted.

Obviously not every line needs to be quotable, but there should at least be a few that beg to be quoted, either silently or when people are talking about the story with friends. It’s even better if someone can quote a line seemingly out of the blue, and others can get it (“Use the force”).

So when writing dialogue, you might want to ask yourself: Do I have any lines that are quotable?
Like I mentioned earlier, there are quotable lines that people quote with their friends, and then there are the quotable lines that people quote in their minds–the kind of things you might find on a wall plaque. In short a quotable line is something that sticks in the mind of the audience after the moment.
So how do you do that?

The line has to be pleasing to the audience in some way. It might be in the language itself–the way it’s said is pleasurable. Or, it might be the tone or the context in which it’s said. But it’s got to have that little buzz to make it sticky.

Then, of course, we have the content that’s being said. Usually quotable lines have one of two types of content:

The concept is significant in some way. These kinds of quotes are often wise.

“It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” –Dumbledore

Or they might capture a complex idea in a simple way.

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world … but you have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices” –John Green

Or explain a relateable experience very accurately.

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” –John Green

They ring of truth.

The concept is entertaining in some way. Usually that means it’s funny.

“Tina, you fat lard, come get some DINNER!” –Napolean Dynamite

“I’ve got a jar of dirt! I’ve got a jar of dirt! And guess what’s inside it!” –Jack Sparrow


Say a lot in a Few Words
Often great dialogue says a lot in a few words.

Cooper: Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn’t exist.
Cooper: That’s right, Murph… . I can’t be your ghost right now. I need to exist.

In his last line, Cooper says a lot of what he feels in a few words. He wants to be a good dad, but he also yearns to feel like he exists, doing what he says he feels he was “born to do.” We learn a lot about Cooper in those few lines. We learn a lot about his deepest feelings. So great dialogue reveals character.

The concept itself is complex. It’s a big idea packaged in a few sentences. The writers could have spent lines and lines getting across what Cooper feels ande conveying this idea, this adult struggle that some parents feel: wanting to be a great parent, but yearning to achieve other dreams. But instead, they said it in a few lines here and there, and they packed a punch.

Sometimes the biggest ideas are most powerful when said in few words.

Beware of Generic Dialogue
Generic dialogue isn't bad dialogue, per se. It's just "blah" dialogue. Sometimes it sounds showy or theatrical, but doesn't feel that way because we've heard it in dozens of other stories. Things like the hero saying, "Pick on someone your own size," or "You're going to regret you ever did that!" and the villain saying things like, "Don't let them escape!" or "You'll wish you had never been born."

They're generic.They're stock. And they don't really do anything for the story.

Learn about generic dialogue and how to avoid it here.

In Closing
Don’t feel like you need to be a master at everything right away, but these are some tricks and techniques and things I’ve learned on my journey. They are meant to help, not overwhelm. Maybe you just want to pick one or two things to work on at a time. That’s fine. Good luck ^_^

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