A phenomenon occurred. Though I should be hardly surprised about it. Reading books on writing saturated my mind to the point where I can no longer read a book and not analyze its structure. And the worst (or best?) part is, when reading dialogue, I suddenly see the emotional subtext underneath it and whether or not it's done right. By "right" I don't mean it adheres to some unbreakable rules, as there is no right way to write. By "right" I mean the reaction it arouses in me as a reader. Does it move me or does it leave me cold? Does it give me an insight or does it bore me? Does it make me root for the characters, or does it make me set the book aside because I don't care for the characters one bit?
The answer to all these questions is surprisingly simple.
The dialogue is done right when its emotional beats alternate between positive and negative with a rising intensity that ultimately leads to a climax.
Since dialogue implies two characters, there are six steps you need to take, three for each character, FOR EVERY BEAT OF DIALOGUE. A beat is one exchange that emotionally pivots around the beat's turning point, an action/reaction. I say this, you say this. That's one beat. As soon as the emotional charge turns, a new beat begins, and so on. Don't worry, I will explain below. (And if there are more than two people talking, you can still break it down to one-on-one exchanges.)
For the first character take this three-step approach:
- Write out the inner monologue that spells out the subtext of what the character needs to say. DO NOT WRITE IT INTO THE DIALOGUE. This is a mistake I made, the typical beginner mistake: to have my characters say what they think. It leaves no room for the reader to participate, to read what's underneath the words, and the reader gets bored. But if you write this out, it will give you the springboard to write what your character will actually say. Yes, this is slow. It's much easier to just type (that's what I used to do). But trust me, it's worth the time and the effort.
- Write out the action your character will perform by speaking. Now that you know what the subtext is, you must know what your character is feeling and what they want to accomplish by saying something. Robert McKee suggest to use one simple gerund. For example, pleading, or ignoring, or lying, or apologizing, or confessing. Whatever it is. Once you get this down, get to the actual writing.
- Write out the text of the dialogue line. It would typically be just one line, maybe several, if your character is making a small speech, but most of the time it will be one or a couple. This is the actual text of the dialogue that is doing three things: hiding the subtext by expressing an emotion to accomplish an action. No small task. If you add to this all the backstory of your character, their personality, speech inflections, specific vocabulary, local dialect, etc., you can see how this can easily eat up hours. Just writing one line. But don't despair. You'll speed up with practice (this is why it's taking me so long to write TUBE).
For the second character take a similar three-step approach, but with one big difference:
- Write out the inner monologue that spells out the subtext, just like for the first character, but in REACTION to the first character's ACTION.
- Write out the action your character wants to accomplish in REACTION to what the first character said, again, using a gerund, but this time the OPPOSITE of the gerund of what the first character accomplished. For example, pleading/rejecting. If the first character pleaded for something, the second character rejected the plea. Once you do this, you will see that between two dialogue lines the emotional charge of the beat has pivoted from positive to negative. From pleading to rejecting. That was one beat. The next beat MUST BE DIFFERENT. If you keep making your first character plead, and your second reject, it will wear thin on the reader. They might forgive you if you do it twice. But if you do it three or more times, they will set the book aside. The next beat has to have a new emotional charge, a new set of action/reaction. Oh, and whoever starts the beat usually has the upper hand in the conflict, so remember that when you decide who talks first.
- Write out the text of the dialogue line for the second character in REACTION to the first character's line. And there you have it. You have completed one beat of dialogue. Which is only two lines. Maybe 10 words total. Want to kill yourself yet? I know I did, when I realized how much work I need to do to write amazing dialogue.
For example (of course I'd give you an example, did you think I'd leave you hanging?):
Let's say, we have Character A, a creepy dude by the name of Bob. Let's say Bob has lured Character B, a gentle boy by the name of Tommy, into an abandoned house where he intends to perform unsightly deeds on the unsuspecting Tommy whose Mama and Papa are anxiously waiting for him to come home from school. Let's say Bob has been planning this for months, and his plan has finally come to fruition. They have entered the house, and he has locked the door. It's gloomy and scary, but Tommy hasn't had time to get scared yet. Now Bob can put his evil plan to work. I will write out one very simple beat according to the steps outlined above.
Three steps for Bob:
- Subtext/inner monologue: I got him. I got him! Easy, easy. I must appear as Mr. Nice Guy. I don't want him to get scared. If he gets scared, he'll soil himself, and I do detest stinky messes. If you were to write this subtext as the actual text, the dialogue line would be verbatim, "Now, don't be scared, Tommy." You see how this is weak? Unless there is yet another subtext hiding underneath the "don't be scared" words.
- Action: coaxing. So what Bob is doing is lying to make Tommy go deeper into the house, into the special room where he plans to do the deed. Coaxing him in. The coaxing is part of his sick game. He could've grabbed Tommy. But instead he persuades him to keep moving.
- Text/dialogue: "Walk quietly, Tommy. You don't want to spoil the surprise." Whatever it is that Bob and Tommy have talked about before, that got Tommy to trust Bob in the first place, Bib has reinforced by coaxing him, to keep moving without actually saying so. And of course, Tommy does.
Three steps for Tommy:
- Subtext/inner monologue: This place looks scary, but I'm not scared. Bob is a nice guy, and he promised me a surprise. I wonder what that might be. It must be something that might hear us. I think I know! If you were to write this subtext as actual text, Tommy would've said, "I'm not scared." Again, unless it's not what Tommy actually meant.
- Action: guessing. Tommy falls into the trap Bob laid out for him and plays along the game, his fears kept at bay by his curiosity. Exactly what Bob wanted. Except it's not. If there is no conflict in the beat, there is no turn. When Bob plans to coax Tommy, he expects Tommy to comply. But Tommy's reaction must come as a surprise, the OPPOSITE of what Bob expects. Then the beat will turn, and Bob will have to come up with a new tactic, new action, and that will start a new beat and will keep our interest going.
- Text/dialogue: "It's a puppy! A puppy!" Let's say Tommy wanted a puppy for a long time, and because Bob tells him to be quiet, Tommy thinks the puppy will hear them. This makes Tommy take off and sprint toward the door where he thinks the puppy hides. Except what he finds is not a puppy at all. I'll leave it to your imagination. Tommy opens the door and sees bad things that scare him, but he has an advantage now. He has exposed Bob's lie and might have enough time to run and escape. See how this threw Bob's game under the bus? Just one beat. Coaxing/guessing. Now he has to come up with the next dialogue line that has a different emotional charge. He can't keep coaxing. He will...what? Scare? Cajole? Threaten? Warn? This is up to you. This is the work of the writer, to keep the conflict going.
This is what's going through my head now as I read books. I look at dialogue and I see three steps for each line. It makes me want to tear my hair out. I want to just read, dammit! I don't want to think! But I can't unlearn what I've learned. So on the other hand, in makes me grin with glee. I know this now! The opening scene of TUBE is so important, it gave me nightmares. I hate the dialogue that's there at the moment. And last night I fixed it. I fixed it! I didn't know the reason I hated it so much, but now I do. And I will have to fix it more, until I'm satisfied.
You wait, more epiphanies will follow.
And tomorrow I'm flying to Colorado Springs to do a workshop on visual storytelling and a lecture on how writing made me happy at Brooke Shaden's Promoting Passion Convention. So if you're there, come by to say hello! And stay tuned. I'll be posting my travel stories here. XOXO