Flat Characters Speak Flat Dialogue
If you are struggling with writing dialogue, you may force yourself instead of allowing the characters to speak. Many new writers freeze when the story calls for dialogue, thinking they need to “write dialogue.”
Somehow, dialogue lives in a separate category that feels outside writing the story. Jim said. Ellie said. And your reader is bored. How do you get your dialogue to feel real? To speak to your reader?
Think of Dialogue as Action
When you write an action scene, you know your character’s emotions and goals. And, the character takes action based on those emotions and goals. For instance, in a fight scene, a character may feel fear and a strong desire to win to fight to save her life. She’ll use anything at hand and her wits in the combat. And the opponent, has similar motivations: hatred of the character and a desire to eliminate the character.
Use the same technique to motivate your character’s dialogue. When you consider your character’s emotional state and goals, you’ll find it easier to write dialogue that corresponds with your character’s personality, emotions, and goals.
Dialogue may not feel as dramatic as a fight scene, but what character’s say have the power to move the story forward, create immediate conflict, and stir the reader’s curiosity to find out what happens next.
Steps to Make Your Dialogue Sound Real
Each section of dialogue belongs to a certain scene. You know the characters in the scene. You know who speaks and who listens. You know if the dialogue is intimate or public. And, just as you know a character’s goal for the story, you need to know the character’s goal for that particular scene.
Choosing the Right Dialogue – The Words and Phrases
Knowing your character’s emotions and goals as you begin the scene, anchors you in the moment of the scene. Understanding each character, helps you create the words and phrases that character will say in the scene moment.
At the beginning of the scene, each character has something they want right now. The agenda, what they want, is what moves the scene. Each character enters the scene with a different agenda. They may or may not want to reveal their agenda.
In a mystery, the sleuth may want to get information about the victim from a suspect. The suspect wants to hide how much they despised the victim.
The why behind the character’s action/dialogue in the scene is the way they want to achieve their agenda. Think of it as because.
Because the detective wants to solve the crime and believes the suspect can give him clues, he asks questions. (action/dialogue)
Because the suspect wants to hide her hatred, her answers relate to the victim’s professional life, not her previous affair with the victim who manipulated her. So, in order to hide her hatred, she omits that history from her answers.
Current Emotional State
Whatever a character’s agenda, their emotional state in the scene will color what they say. Consider the various emotions each character brings to the scene right now. You aren’t limited to one.
The detective feels harried, pressured to solve the case, and defeated because nothing, so far, has pointed to the villain.
The suspect feels apprehensive that the detective will probe, afraid that her cover-up will be penetrated, and confident in her acting skills.
If you are already thinking of the questions and answers these two will have, that’s exactly how you approach dialogue that comes from a character’s goals and feelings.
What Do They Feel Right Now?
Now probe deeper to find the emotional state of the character as they speak. You’ll want to stay with the emotional state because it can change as the dialogue continues.
The detective may feel aggressive, resolved, or discouraged.
The suspect may feel intimidated, confident, and sly.
Keep working with the feelings. They will change as the dialogue continues with each character aiming for their goal and being frustrated by the other’s ability to frustrate the goal.
How Will They Try to Get What They Want?
With the agenda in mind and current feelings, each character tries to reach their goal. But, as the other character keeps them from reaching the goal, each character will try to turn the scene so he gets what he wants.
The detective may shift from flattering to direct questions or vice versa. The suspect may shift from flirtatious to factual statements or the other way around.
You, as the writer, can play with how each character responds to the dialogue of the other character.
What Will Force Them to Change?
Now we get to the crux of the scene, and all through dialogue. Each character must change either their emotions or their agenda, to change how they talk to the other character. You’ve been building up to the major conflict of the scene and now something has to give.
One or both of the characters will change their behavior (action) in order to resolve the conflict. The suspect may clam up or decide to reveal her past history. The sleuth may press for answers or leave without getting the answers he wants.
It’s up to you, but to create conflict and move the story forward your characters must make a change.
What Do They Feel At The End of the Dialogue?
By the end of the scene, the characters will have different feelings than those at the beginning because the conflict turned things around.
Will your detective feel triumphant and ready to move forward, or will he feel more pressure and disappointment? Will the suspect sigh with relief because her tactic worked or throw a tantrum because the detective pierced her secret.
Good Dialogue Stems from Character Motivation and Feelings
Know your character. Their goals and feelings. Get them to take the action of speaking to work toward their goal. When you approach dialogue as action based on a character’s current emotional state and goal, you’ll find dialogue flows.
And, because each character has different and sometimes opposing goals and feelings, the words they speak will feel true to character. You’ll avoid flat dialogue, enrich each scene, and keep your reader wondering what will come next.