Can we talk?
Look. There's only so much to say about dialogue in fiction and there's already been a lot this week. So let me leave you with this.
Dialogue in fiction has to sound like dialogue in real life, but it is utterly unlike real life dialogue. Conversation in day to day life doesn't have to have any point. It needn't be fraught with tons of subtext. In fact, one of the great joys of day to day conversation is that it has no point other than to establish a brief connection with another human being. Our lives generally have room for that kind of aimless chat about the weather. Stories don't. Dialogue in a story must use as few words as possible to hit as many points as possible while pushing the tension of the conflict in the direction it needs to go. Lovely, Marcella, but how the heck do you actually DO that?
*I* do it by drafting in first person and by reminding myself that the person who uses the most words is the weakest. Surprised? Did you know I had a super short and ill-fated stint selling cars? Yeah, I sucked at it. But. I learned a bunch of sales tricks and that was one. Saying only what is necessary is the position of strength. The other HOW is through ruthless editing and paying attention to my beats, objectives and tactics. This part gets complicated. It's from a class I teach on text analysis. That's usually a year long course. It's a little chewy.
main points I want to make are these:
1. In every conversation, each participant has a goal (Objective) You can usually
work that out by looking at the dialog and asking, "What does that
character want right here?" Character goals may not align - usually they don't. One person wants x and the other one wants y.
2. In a conversation where objectives don't align, characters will change how
they go about trying to get what they want. (Tactics) You'll find tactics by
asking "How is that character going about getting what he or she
As a result:
3. Every conversation is a win or lose proposition - someone wins, someone
Let me give you an example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In
the beginning of the book, Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall meet outside
the Dursley’s house. I’m using just the dialog because that’s where objectives
and tactics originate. (This is from the very first chapter of the book.)
Dumbledore: Would you care for a lemon drop?
McGonagall: A what?
Dumbledore: A lemon drop. They’re a kind of Muggle sweet I’m rather fond of.
McGonagall: No, thank you. As I say, even if You-Know-Who has gone –
Dumbledore: My dear professor, surely a sensible person like yourself can call
him by his name? All this ‘You-Know-Who’ nonsense – for eleven years I have
been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort. It
all gets so confusing if we keep saying ‘You-Know-Who.’ I have never seen any
reason to be frightened of saying Voldemort’s name.
McGonagall: I know you haven’t. But you’re different. Everyone knows you’re the
only one You-Know- oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of.
Dumbledore: You flatter me. Voldemort had powers I will never have.
McGonagall: Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.
Dumbledore: It’s lucky it’s dark. I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey
told me she liked my new earmuffs.
This short scene is a ‘beat’. It encompasses one complete set of objectives and tactics.
This beat has a clear winner and a clear loser. Dumbledore wins this round.
Here’s why. In the larger scene from which this scene was extracted, Dumbledore
is refusing to allow McGonagall to challenge his decision (the decision to place
Harry with the Dursley’s). Professor McGonagall met him outside the house with
three things in mind: to confirm that Voldemort is gone, to confirm the rumors
that the Potters are dead, and to question the wisdom of placing the infant
Harry in so cold a home. These are their objectives.
Dumbledore’s objective is to shut down anything that might alter his course.
McGonagall’s objective is to extract confirmation from Dumbledore that
Voldemort really has been defeated.
Because she kept *trying* to broach the subject, but never got the assurance
she wanted, Professor McGonagall loses. Dumbledore wins because he achieved his
objective – he shut his colleague down. He won’t go on winning, however. If you
read further in the chapter, Professor McGonagall does manage to extract the
information she wants and she does question his decision. Ultimately, however,
by the chapter’s end, Dumbledore emerges the winner in the objectives war. He
does leave Harry with the Dursleys - but it comes at a cost - he has to acknowledge
his own misgivings about the situation and explain his reasoning to Professor
McGonagall. Both things expose emotions in him that he really didn't want
anyone (including himself) to see.
Read the dialog again. Now that you know their objectives, concentrate on *how*
each character achieved his or her objectives (or failed to).
Dumbledore, by focusing on inane minutiae, managed to keep a very bright and
capable woman off a point of significant emotional importance to her. He
defended his objective by distracting Professor McGonagall, but *how* does he
distract her? Initially, he distracts her with charm (Would you care for a
lemon drop?). When that fails (she says: As I was saying…) he changes tactics
and becomes annoyed. (Oh look, say his name!) It works. She’s derailed. He
changes tactics again, letting the annoyance go. He subsides into
pseudo-embarrassment (stop, you’ll make me blush) – his last few lines carry a
hint of amusement and of warning to Professor McGonagall not to wax too
sentimental – almost as if he’s bracing her for what’s about to come: Hagrid,
carrying the infant Harry.
If you now go through and read the scene in the novel, you’ll find that the
narration; the actions and the body language in the scene shore up the
objectives and tactics as I’ve given them here. But in acting and in writing a
book, it pays to be contrarian from time to time. Ask yourself: How else could
this scene play out? Give your imagination free reign. The objectives remain
the same. Those are dictated by the words your characters say, but the tactics
– how you pursue those objectives – that’s where you can play around, looking
for the unexpected.
Imagine Johnny Depp (as Captain Jack Sparrow) delivering Dumbledore’s lines and
reread the scene. I bet you saw a completely different set of tactics didn’t
you? He’d feign madness initially. Then puff up with self-importance, and
finally end with the false modesty that is a Captain Jack trademark. Can you
imagine how McGonagall’s reactions would change in response to these different
Then, what if Dumbledore were actually Voldemort in disguise? Reread the dialog
from that perspective – knowing that there’s now an added dimension to his need
to distract her for there’s a vital secret to keep. Suddenly, there’s menace
and a sly, watchful, almost probing emotional component to the fake
Dumbledore’s seemingly innocent words. McGonagall’s dialog takes on a new,
deeper significance, too – her line “I know you haven’t. But you’re different.”
This would be delivered with a penetrating stare – as if she sensed the man
standing next to her wasn’t what he appeared. In this case, we nearly reverse
the winner of the objective game – if she finds out his secret, she wins and on
those two lines, she comes very, very close, but the dialog doesn’t change and
the false Dumbledore wins by assuaging her doubt – he gives her a detail only
the real Dumbledore ought to know – that Professor Pomfrey complimented his
taste in ear muffs.
Silly, I know, but look at how the feel of a few simple words can change based
on the emotional choices you as an author make. Many people forget that HOW you
say something or HOW you perform an action can communicate volumes about what
you're feeling in a scene. When you
read your drafts, just as an exercise, try reading only dialog. Look for places
to veer into more interesting emotional territory with tags or short bits of
action that show your reader how your character is going after what he or she
wants. It’s in the small, seemingly inconsequential spots that you can play
with tactics, with action and reaction, looking for an emotional angle that
delights or horrifies you. In this way, you're making dialogue do far more than chat between characters. Goals are pursued, yes, but with tactics and objectives, you're putting characters in a win/lose position with one another. If you're writing romance, the winning and losing had better balance out or the relationship is doomed. But this gives you all sorts of room to play with power balances between your characters while they're working out how to defeat the bad guy, save the world, or blow up that tower.
Now. Aren't you glad you and I get to just talk about the weather??