How to Write Effective Dialogue

Ch. 3 has me working on a very important scene in my novel that has to lay the groundwork for several things:  the mood of my story, the pace, the atmosphere that the character experiences as she enters a new world, and most importantly, the relationship between two characters whose friendship is central to the plot and theme of the story.

It’s a lot to juggle, and it puts a lot of the pressure on the dialogue which dominates most of this chapter.

There are a few things I can lay claim to being an expert on at this point of my writing career, but I am proud to say that one of those things is writing effective dialogue. Now before I come off as being too smug with myself, I’d like to argue why I think I have authority on the subject. If you recall from my very first post (Read “Risk.“), I used to spend most of my time acting, not writing.

I’ve acted since I was in elementary school, and any actor will tell you that dialogue is simply what we do. I’ve been in dozens of plays, workshopped with (quite possibly) hundreds of scenes, and have been an audience to several acting workshops (were actors, with the guide of the acting teacher, will re-work a scene, then re-work the same scene, then re-work the same scene, again…) I did my penance as a director several times, and did some hand’s-on dirty work as a playwright (dialogue is what they do, too).  I’ve taught several workshops on the subject, and have watched several non-actors utilize the principles I am about to share with you, and then go on to create wonders. So I can safely say, without any real tinge of smuginess, that I know dialogue so inside and out that I should be sick of it by now–if it wasn’t for the fact that I totally love it.

Why? Because it’s so frickin’ simple and straightforward (unlike most parts of the writing process.) Whereas the rules for other parts of the writing process are more like guidelines, the basics of creating effective dialogue are set in stone. I would argue this because the principles of writing effective dialogue are as natural as well…  human nature. That’s because, not surprisingly, the rules are based on human biology, psychology, and every other human-ology. If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you a little theater history. It all starts with this man:Mr. Constantin Stanislavski. He’s a Russian dude who lived a long time ago. You have him to partly thank for the amazing performances of the likes of Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. Before Mr. Stan, acting was very cheesy, fake, and overblown. (Think: Lady Gaga concert sans speaker systems.) Characters could do crazy things, like break the fourth wall, and audiences would escape into worlds that were outlandish and were hardly a reflection of real life. But Mr. Stanislavski had a cool new idea. He posed the zany question:  “Why not have actors act like real people?”  So, Mr. Stan went to study the psychology of real people, found a couple of concrete principles, and directed his actors to follow these principles in the hopes that by following them, the actor’s artificial behavior would arrive at real, life-like, human emotion.

I’m not going to get much more into detail other than that. Basically today’s actor follows these three basic rules when they are playing a character in a scene:

OBJECTIVE

You character must have an objective.  An overall OBJECTIVE is fine, but you should also have one for each specific scene.  An OBJECTIVE is the character’s goal (i.e., what the character wants.)

OBSTACLE

Your character must have an obstacle.  An obstacle is something that is getting in the way of what the character wants (OR his/her OBJECTIVE.)  It can be big or small, but it’s important that there is one.  I’ll discuss why in a moment.

ACTION

Your character must have an action. An ACTION, in this case, is not just something a character is doing. The ACTION is what the character does to try to overcome the OBSTACLE and achieve their OBJECTIVE.

These basic principles are based on human nature. You knew this, but you just never think about it until now:  we all have an objective in life, we all have an obstacle to it, and we all perform an action to achieve our goals every moment of our lives. (Now do you see what I mean when I said these are pretty much Set In Stone rules?)  You simply cannot portray real human conversations on a stage, or on a page, unless you follow basic human nature. And basic human nature reveals that we are never “just doing nothing.”  There is always some goal in mind, whether it is as simple as:  “I got to find a bathroom;” or as big as: “I want to finish this Ph.D program.” When we have conversations, we carry these objectives with us. People’s objectives tend to clash, and that’s what causes drama. This is bad for real life, but great material for a story.

I find that the OBSTACLE is what is often what is missing from a bad piece of written dialogue. No one wants to read a conversation about nothing. If they do, they want to at least feel like there is some real human tension behind all this nothing that is going on, or else they would care less about what your characters are talking about. So if your character’s want to achieve a goal, make sure you throw a big boulder (or at least a little one) in their way, before they get to their objective. Otherwise it’s just no fun for the reader. This creates what is called (say it with me fellow writers) CONFLICT. Or as I like to call it, Friction. Trust me, adequately employed, these three principles will add magic to any piece of dialogue you write. Suddenly your imaginary people will come to life, and even you’ll be glued to the page to see what’s going to happen to them next.

So, here are my suggestions on how to apply this tried and true acting philosophy to your writing:

1.  Delete (temporarily) everything but the dialogue on the page. (Save the excised parts in a different document for now.) All of the “non-dialogue” sentences in between the dialogue itself often get in the way.  Take a cue from playwrights and learn how to use dialogue to move story and character forward without the use of the “in betweens.” (Don’t worry, we’ll add any necessary “in betweens” at the very end.)

2.  Write out the OBJECTIVE, OBSTACLE, AND ACTION for each character in the dialogue scene. Be as specific as possible. Actors learn that specificity improves their performance. They are playing a real human being, so it’s important to add as much real human specificity as possible. You are writing a real human being, so take a cue from actors, and flesh out the details. (NOTE:  There may be several OBJECTIVES, OBSTACLES, and ACTIONS per scene, per character.)

3. Let It Rip. Now for the fun part. Equipped with their concrete OBJECTIVES, OBSTACLES, AND ACTIONS, let your characters duke it out on the page. It’s important not to force anything, let the characters talk just as they would if the conflict was happening live and raw. Increase the OBSTACLE to raise the stakes and add more drama. Decrease the OBSTACLE to lessen the drama. If the dialogue starts to get stymied, allow a character to employ a different strategy than the one he/she is currently using to achieve their goal. If you’re not sure what I mean by “strategy,” then just focus on changing the action. (Examples of Actions: pleading, guilt-tripping, blaming, seducing etc. Think VERBS!) Remember, a scene does not have to end with a character achieving their OBJECTIVE. It’s your choice.

4. Edit. If you have employed the principles correctly, the dialogue should have organically reached a conclusion with either character achieving their OBJECTIVE (or not.) Now all you got to do is go back and trim out all the excess fat. Suggestions:  Cut out any instances in which character’s strategy was employed more than once.

5. Reapply The Icing On The Cake. Now get that document where you saved all of the “in betweens.” These “in between” sentences are just “icing on the cake” of an effective dialogue scene. If you did your job well, you may see that there are several “in betweens” that are no longer necessary because the dialogue has now taken care of answering a lot of questions for the reader (it may have even answered some questions that you didn’t realize needed answering.) Pick and chose only what the scene needs. Remember, it’s just the icing on the cake, too much sweetness is no good. So just put enough to complement the dialogue, not drown the dialogue in too many details.

6. Read It Out Loud. Conversations are meant to be spoken, even written ones. So always make sure to read your dialogue out loud. Do the voices, and what is more helpful: be an actor and play the OBJECTIVE, OBSTACLE, and ACTION as you deliver the lines. By the way, this process also helps you figure out where to plug-in all of your pauses, commas, dashes, ellipses, etc.

7. Revise. Double check to see that your newly edited dialogue is still following the OBJECTIVES, OBSTACLES, ACTIONS you set up at the very beginning of this process. This is actually an important last step, because it’s easy to lose sight of things as you go through the steps. It’s important to remain consistent, if you are not, it may have negative consequences on your character: ACTIONS incongruent with their overall OBJECTIVE will make them too unrealistic.

That about covers it. Any questions? Let me know. For some people who are new to these concepts it may be hard to understand it unless you actually see it in action. But I hope it helps!

much love,

Ollin

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2 comments on “How to Write Effective Dialogue

  1. […] How to Write Effective Dialogue {Tried and true advice on how to create excellent dialogue and develop realistic characters. Priceless knowledge gained from my years and years of studying acting.} […]

  2. […] writing in most of these styles whenever I feel like it: I could write funny posts, spiritual posts, technical posts, or even a post about relationships–without missing a […]

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