The Power of Dialogue: 4 Techniques to Supercharge Your Story
“A dialogue is very important. It is a form of communication in which question and answer continue till a question is left without an answer. Thus the question is suspended between the two persons involved in this answer and question. It is like a bud with untouched blossoms... If the question is left totally untouched by thought, it then has its own answer because the questioner and answerer, as persons, have disappeared. This is a form of dialogue in which investigation reaches a certain point of intensity and depth, which then has a quality that thought can never reach.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
It’s no secret that directors like Quentin Tarantino are masters of dialogue in film. His tension-filled scenes have become the iconic examples of how to use dialogue in storytelling.
But how is he able to create such great dialogue? What are the steps we can take to recreate the work of this master?
In this post I hope to give you some tips on how to construct witty, entertaining dialogue that doesn’t bore and doesn’t rely on exposition.
Dialogue Shows Character Traits
“Are you an idiot, or an idiot?” Gargarin hissed. “The first one. I really resent being called the second.” ― Melina Marchetta, Froi of the Exiles
Dialogue is the most efficient way for your characters to express their personalities. Having them say something that demonstrates their personality traits is instant, and the audience instantly understand.
Are they arrogant? Then have them make an arrogant comment. Don’t tell the audience that they’re arrogant.
Are they cowardly? Then have them brag about how brave they were in the face of a yappy little Poodle. Don’t tell the audience that they’re cowardly.
Are they uncomfortable? Then have them talk one word at a time, shuffling in their chair as they look anywhere but at the person they’re talking to. Don’t tell the audience that they’re uncomfortable.
See the pattern here? It’s a clear application of the Show, Don’t Tell principle. You can achieve more by showing a natural conversation between two human-like characters. Put yourself in each of the characters’s shoes if you have to.
In real life, we can tell a lot about a person from the front they present. An insecure person will loudly beat their chest. A shy person is really desperate for attention. Let your audience read between the lines, if they have to. The best dialogue reflects real life.
Top Tip—In any given scene, ask yourself "What is this character's true nature, and how can I show that to the audience through their words?"
Dialogue Conveys Humour
“You weren't able to talk sense into him?" “Well, we kind of tried to kill each other in a duel to the death." “I see. You tried the diplomatic approach.” ― Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters
You can have a character tell a joke in fewer words than you can describe it in your narration. That is why dialogue is the most efficient way of conveying humour.
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne foolishly goes by himself to confront the ruthless crime boss Falcone. Inside his club, Falcone intimidates a terrified Bruce, showing him the real power that fear has over even judges and police in his presence.
After Bruce gets beaten up and thrown out of the club, he pulls himself up and sees an old homeless man warming himself by a fire. Looking down at his rich coat, he realises the journey he now has to take and gives his coat at the homeless man. It’s a symbol of the life of privilege he will have to shun to become Batman.
This act of generosity comes first circle after Bruce, now Batman, successfully intimidates Falcone and his thugs in the famous limousine scene. After knocking Falcone out, Batman sees the same homeless man, and says “Nice coat,” before flying away.
The genius in this humorous quip is that it not only makes the audience chuckle, but that it also underlines Bruce’s character arc from scared and privileged boy to brave, intimidating, and self-sufficient man.
Top Tip—Subvert the reader's expectations by ramping up the tension and then delivering a joke that pokes fun at some unspoken truth in the scene.
Dialogue is Good for Concise Exposition
“They speak very well of you". "They speak very well of everybody." "That so bad?" "Yes. It means you can’t trust them.” — Iain M. Banks
Think of the last time you walked into a new house. Did you sit down at the nearest desk to write three paragraphs of description on the rooms around you? No, of course not, you complimented your friend on their wonderfully decorated living room, and they thanked you.
Dialogue is the most efficient medium for exposition, provided that the observations and thoughts that people have seem natural.
In J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek film reboot, James Kirk and Bones describe some exposition, but do it in the middle of an exciting action-filled scene, as Kirk’s hand hilariously blows up. They talk about the rules of Starfleet, potentially a dry topic, but it’s fun to watch because things are actually happening in the scene.
‘Exposition’ is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to storytelling. But sometimes it can’t be avoided—the audience just needs that bit of information for the story to progress. Take a lesson from this scene in Star Trek then, and see that you can give the audience an information dump so long as it’s done in the middle of a fun exchange of dialogue between two characters.
Top Tip—Try to find anywhere you're narrating some facts to the audience, and ask yourself if it can be better delivered by character dialogue. But keep it subtle!
Dialogue Gets Right to the Action
“Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start." ― P. G. Wodehouse
The best stories start right in the action. Quentin Tarantino’s best films are almost nothing but dialogue from start to finish. Think of Pulp Fiction’s beginning diner scene right to the blood-soaked argument scene as Mia lays on the floor—all the tensions are built up gradually using his masterful style of confrontational dialogue that he’s so known for.
Starting right from the dialogue is a bit like going on the offensive in times of war—it immerses the audience straight away into the experience that you’re creating. Two characters are talking, it can be a discussion or an argument, and we’re getting an immediate sense of the conflict between these two characters.
In Avengers: Infinity War we don’t start off with an exposition dump. We see one of the Black Order heralding the dominance of Thanos to the crew of the doomed ship. (Jon: I’m carefully avoiding spoilers here, go and see it!) This puts us right into the middle of the action, we get a visceral sense of the power and destruction that lie at Thanos’s feet. He and his acolytes are quickly shown to be a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
Arguably the best part of the original Star Wars saga was the chemistry between the cast of characters we now know and love. That was built up through dialogue, and realistic dialogue at that. The same goes for the love that builds between Han and Leia in Empire—their tension was built through exchanges of dialogue.
See from these examples the power of dialogue to put your audience right in the thick of the action. Don’t throw a chapter of exposition at them, but show them an implication of it—two human people and the conflicts between them, each showing to the audience their motivations and feelings.
Top Tip—If there's any rule of thumb in storytelling, it's 'add more conflict', and dialogue is a simple way to deliver that. More arguments, more poking at character's insecurities, it's all story gold.
I highly recommend you check out these books for excellent tips on dialogue in storytelling:
- How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell (this is a personal favourite of mine, it's full of storytelling wisdom)
- Shut Up! He Explained by William Noble
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Creating Character Arcs by K. M. Weiland
Posted on: 20th June, 2018
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