One thing we can get wrong is NOT utilizing dialogue to its full potential. It's easy to write on a page but can be difficult to get sounding great. I don’t think it's because of any lack of creativity or imagination - I think we may simply be approaching dialogue from the wrong angle.
Dialogue is MORE than just a tool for exposition. “Show don’t tell” is a trick used in writing to force ourselves to find a visual way to give audience information without resorting to lines of dialogue.
Instead of Jimmy shouting “I’m so angry, Mindy!”, have him smash a plate. No lines - all visual.
If you apply this rule to your writing, you now have a vacant space where the dialogue used to be. This gives you the opportunity to use dialogue to demonstrate character traits.
If you think of dialogue as a tool to open up characters, they actions, and better yet their REACTIONS to statements and questions, it starts to open up a lot more opportunities to see who a character really is.
Let's go back to Jimmy in the kitchen. Originally we had Jimmy’s line, “I’m so angry, Mindy!”. Then we found the action in that line, ANGRY, and replaced the dialogue with an action, “Jimmy smashes a plate on the floor.” It shows us his anger.
Let's add a line back in before he smashes the plate. Smashing the plate shows us his emotion. So we can use a line of dialogue to further unravel his relationship with Mindy.
Jimmy: “You are just like your mother, Mindy!” Jimmy smashes a plate on the floor. With a line like that, we are given information about their relationship dynamic.
“You are just like your mother, Mindy”: this signifies Jimmy’s distaste of Mindy’s mother. It also shows that Jimmy is starting to see traits of Mindy’s mother in Mindy. He is now perceiving her in a different light. A line like that could also tell us that Jimmy has been holding in this feeling as he expresses it during a moment of anger, so maybe Jimmy keeps most of his feeling to himself.
But we can go one step further! Dialogue is not JUST delivered. It is also received.
There are AT LEAST two people in a conversation. So we can show two sides of a conversation using the delivery of a line and the other person’s reaction to the line. Dialogue is ACTIVE then REACTIVE.
“You are just like your mother, Mindy!”...Mindy could then say something like “She’s a better mother than yours!” which gives us the impression that Mindy doesn’t like Jimmy’s mother but also that she is the type of person who isn’t afraid to say what she is feeling.
Let’s try changing the line and see how it changes the reaction to the previous line
“You are just like your mother, Mindy!”....Mindy then responds “Oh my god. You’re right.”. So in this instance she has realised she has messed up, and is able to perceive her attitude.
But we can actually use the rule “Show - Don’t tell” here!
Instead of the line “Oh my god. You’re right”, she could simply freeze from the conversation, give a moment of stuttering dialogue, but then hold back and drop her eye contact with Jimmy.
Once you start to think of dialogue as being an element which can be received and not simply delivered, you are increasing the opportunities for developing a character’s personality.
One last thing: The reaction to a line of dialogue doesn’t always have to be the clean-cut correct answer. Misinterpretation is something we can include to give dialogue more realism.
Mindy says the line “You shouldn't be sleeping on the sofa anymore”. The reaction to this by default be may that she is inviting Jimmy to sleep upstairs again and she wants to resolve the situation. But let's play the scene out.
Mindy: “You shouldn't be sleeping on the sofa anymore”.
Jimmy: “So I can sleep in our bed again?”
Mindy: “No, you need to move out.” This adds a bit of a twist to the conversation and confirms her ACTUAL interpretation to that line.
Obviously this is a very simple scene with some super basic one dimensional characters, but hopefully that gets the point across.
Try to find the emotion in a line and replace it with action. Then think of the REACTION of a line as a way to show character traits. If you want dialogue to sound more realistic, try having the characters NOT QUITE understand the question or statement, and then have them confirm the real answer.
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