Make your characters talk good – elements of dialogue

We learn to talk as toddlers, we do it every day, you’d think it would be a snap to write, right?

Not so fast little author, Dialogue can be the heartbeat of your book of fact or fiction. It can also be the clunker that pulls a reader right out of the story and into another book. And it can be hard to master.

What follows is an adapted excerpt from Paula Berinstein’s book Writing Dialogue and part of a series of lessons on the art and craft of making your characters talk good – that is, in a believable way that propels your story forward.

In this first lesson Berinstein discusses the importance of character “agenda.” Your characters need to have a specific agenda every time they speak. Effective dialogue is purposeful. It is the means by which characters reveal their goals and motivations and implement their strategies for getting what they want, both overall and in specific situations. In other words, in dialogue your characters should:

Demonstrate what they want.

Say specific things to try to get what they want.

Incite reactions from others that either help or thwart them so they can take their next step.

That’s what dialogue is: purposeful talk driven by characters’ self-interests. And, as characters pursue their goals and get reactions in the attempt to surmount obstacles, the story moves forward. So effective dialogue moves a story forward!

Of course, accomplishing that is easier said than done. In order to show what your characters want, you have to ask a question now so familiar it’s become a cliché. Actors from David Garrick in the 18th century to Al Pacino today have asked “What’s my [character’s] motivation?”

Your characters’ motivations are what drives them. Without motivation, your characters will be inconsistent and shallow, and you’ll get lousy fiction.

All characters want something (their goal) for a reason (their motivation) and go about pursuing it via certain courses of action (their strategies). When your characters have goals, motivations, and strategies, they have agendas. Every character, major and minor, should have an overall agenda and a specific agenda in each situation.

Effective dialogue moves the story forward by pitting characters’ agendas against each other, whether a character is talking or being talked about. You want those agendas to clash because obstacles, conflict, and resistance lead to change or transformation, which is the essence of every story.

Let’s look at some dialogue that reveals characters’ agendas and the conflicts between them. Here’s a passage from Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood. The conversation is between Tony, a psychologist and freelance criminal profiler, and Carol, a police inspector. Carol starts.

“What time are we due to kick off?”

“Couple of minutes.”

“Fancy catching up over lunch?” She’d practiced the casual tone half a hundred times on the motorway coming over to Leeds.

“I can’t.” He looked genuinely sorry. “We eat together in the squad. But I was going to ask you…”

“Yes?” Careful, Carol, not too eager!

“Are you in a hurry to get back?”

“No, no rush.” Her heart singing, yes, yes, he’s going to ask me to dinner.

“Only, I wondered if you’d like to sit in on the afternoon session.”

“Right.” Her voice bright, her hopes squashed, the light in her eyes dulled. “Any particular reason?”

“I set them an exercise last week. They’re supposed to produce their conclusions today and I thought it might be helpful to have your response to their analyses.”

“Fine.”

Tony took a shallow breath and said, “Plus, I thought we could maybe have a drink afterwards?”

In this passage, we see two people at odds, but they don’t want to show their hands. At the same time, they don’t want to antagonize each other because they like each other and work together. Carol is attracted to Tony, and while he has some mutual feeling, his intimacy issues keep him from acting on it. In this dialogue, he sends mixed messages that alternately elate and deflate her, while she affects nonchalance and professionalism.

What is McDermid doing to achieve this tension? She makes her characters thwart each others’ expectations, say other than what they mean, misunderstand each other, and subtly attempt to control the conversation (and by extension their relationship). Not a word is wasted, even the “What time are we due to kick off?,” which adds pressure to the scene because they will have to move on and stop talking.

How does the scene move the story forward? For one thing, McDermid leaves the door open to further possibilities with Tony’s invitation to have a drink. Perhaps Tony will give in to his desires. Or not. Whatever happens, we’re beginning to see that this push and pull between the two can only go on so long before he gives in or one of them leaves the relationship.

So in this example (there are more), you see characters:

Striving to realize their objectives. Being together or not being together. Taking responsibility or getting someone else to.

Acting on their strategies. Trying to get the other person involved or blocking involvement.

Remember effective dialogue has characters:

Demonstrating their objectives. (Showing us what they want.)

Acting on their strategies. (Trying to get what they want.)

Inciting reactions from others. (Getting feedback.)

In other words, dialogue is a form of action.

For more examples of “agenda”, read Paula’s book Writing Dialogue.

The Wire in the Blood excerpt copyright Val McDermid 1997.

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