Among the takeaways from Brandon Sanderson’s writing course are five components of dialogue. People talk, it’s a vital part of human communication. But writing good dialogue in fiction isn’t easy. Just watch ten minutes of Rings of Power.
Sanderson gives his students a five-letter mnemonic to guide them in writing dialogue: MICRO. It’s neat, but I suggest he put the letters in the wrong order of priority to suit the abbreviation. I’m going with: OMCIR. It’s not so memorable, but it fits my process. Sorry, Sando.
Those same five components of dialogue are:
Let’s break those down.
What’s the writer’s objective for the dialogue? What does the dialogue need to achieve? The main objectives are:
- Deepen or break the relationship of the characters talking
- Create conflict or tension between characters
Lesser objectives are:
- Advance the plot
- Drip-feed some information into the text; character, plot, setting
If the dialogue doesn’t meet the relationship objective, then it’s a wasted opportunity. Dialogue is great for illuminating character relationships.
Do the objective(s) require dialogue or can these be achieved some other way? There’s nothing worse than contrived, artificial dialogue. Sanderson refers often to the ‘Maid-and-Butler’ prologues of bad stage plays where two characters re-cap or scene-set with the ‘as-you-know,’ ‘yes-and’ conversation. Bad novelists do this too. Find another way.
Decide for each of the participants in the dialogue
- What do they want?
- How does the dialogue advance toward what they want?
- What are they trying to communicate? Surface and sub-text come into play.
- What do they want the other person(s) to do or feel?
Dialogue is about communication; expressing wants, advising, arguing, persuading, opposing; even blocking and rejecting.
Surface text and sub-text can be at odds. This is where a character’s stated wants or goals differ from their innermost wants of goals. How many times have you heard this:
“How are you?”
“Good. What time’s dinner?”
The opening ‘how are you’ might be a genuine concern, polite small-talk, or a loaded challenge.
‘Fine’ can be equally polite small talk, a passive-aggressive challenge, a lie, a concealment, even a cry for help.
The dinner question might come from hunger, awkwardness, a drive to change the subject, a dismissal or an act of oppression.
Those three lines of dialogue, heavily loaded in any number of ways, pivot the scene according to the characters’ motives. That’s a whole story right there.
Dialogue in fiction without conflict is dry and empty. Beginning with agreement which breaks down, or disagreement which comes to resolution, either way there has to be difference.
Dialogue is about argument and debate. Without it, there’s no tension.
Conflict arises from wants, ideas, identities, and character traits like pride and prejudice (collect a sticker). Explore difference and you get sparkling dialogue. You don’t need constant fireworks, explosions and drama. Sparks, fizz, tension, undercurrents; these all work in dialogue.
Often it’s the opposition left unsaid that elevates a conversation. Harold Pinter made a career out of the short line and long pause.
The key to identifying and identifying with the characters is individuality. This includes:
- modes of speech; that is, word choice, construction, tone
- registers (formal/informal, social hierarchy, rank, privilege, age and gender)
Dialogue needs to deliver distinct character voices. We should be able to tell which is the sixty-year-old priest and which is the fifteen year-old parishioner; the rookie cop and the gang-member. Or the CEO and the janitor, the school geek and the sports jock.
Handle accents and dialects with care. One can fall into comedy, the other to incomprehension.
What is realistic in conversation? Alright, now what is realistic dialogue in fiction? There’s a difference. Dialogue is crafted speech that feels ‘real’; it’s rarely realistic.
Read a transcript of an interview; politics, sports, celebrity, vox-pops. They’re terrible. The message gets lost in all the filler words. Now edit those out. Delete the ums, errs, like, y’know; the stumbles, stutters, mis-pronunciation, aborted half-sentences. No gigantic pauses.
This is the heightened realism of crafted dialogue that we accept as we read. It is concise, clear and above all, brief.
Now put back in selected ticks and trips where they add colour to the dialogue;
- creating individuality
- leaning into realism
The socially awkward teenager will hesitate with umms and errs; as will the lying suspect evading the detective’s questions. The politician habitually gives roundabout or evasive answers, self-editing, revising and re-framing what they say as they go.
Brevity in dialogue works. You can leave it to the reader to imagine the rest with only a few hints.
‘Maid-and-butler’ dialogue rings the realism bell. And the Architect in Matrix Revolutions tips into incomprehensible, even though it’s appropriate for the character.
Those are are five components of dialogue, in my best order of priority. In practice, several rounds of editing will polish and shine even the most mundane dialogue.