Writing Good Dialogue Part 1

For a narrative writer, dialogue is perhaps the most challenging thing to write effectively. I have been accused by the Brothers’ Anwar of writing cheesy dialogue, so this is something I have been looking into. I’ll give you an executive summary of what I’ve learnt.
Every character has something that they want. This works at different levels. Let me bore you with some management theory (the day job’s paying off). Abraham Maslow suggests that people are driven by a hierarchy of needs. The first tier of these needs is the physiological; food, warmth, shelter, etc. Once a person has fulfilled these basic needs, they move onto the next tier, which is safety, i.e. personal safety, security of wealth/income, etc. If you live in a cardboard box under a bridge, chances are you haven’t got this far. If you live in a mud hut with a local food source and neighbourhood watch (militia) then you’re at the second tier. The next stage is the fulfilment of love, whether that’s a love interest, family circle or just plain old friendship.
The first three tiers define how most of us live. The next two tiers define who we want to be. The fourth tier is Esteem, the need to achieve something, earn the respect of your fellow humans, maybe by killing the local rogue troll or dragon. The fifth and final tier is Self-Actualisation, i.e. world peace, defeat evil, overthrow tyrant, the ultimate goals that we dream of achieving. You can’t achieve the upper tiers though without first achieving the lower tiers.
What does that mean in terms of your characters and dialogue? Dialogue is action and therefore must move the story forward. Having page after page of witty Tarantino styled dialogue may be amusing to read, but doesn’t really push the story forward at all. Therefore dialogue must represent what each character wants to achieve, whether its physiological, safety, love, self-esteem or self-actualisation, i.e. short term and long-term goals.
The next thing you should consider is how your character is going to work this need into their dialogue, i.e. blunt, innocent, round about, cynical, sly, etc. Here are a few example . . .
‘Give me some food, please.’ ‘Are you going to eat that?’ ‘That looks tasty,’
‘Are you putting on weight?’
All of the above snippets are asking for the same thing, but a writer has to choose what is appropriate for their character.
Finally, you’ve also got to consider what response your character is looking for. If your character is a beggar and he wants food, he’s not going to be haughty, arrogant or insulting, because then he’s not going to get anything. If your character is in love with a guy, but isn’t sure whether he loves her, she’s not going to be blunt and risk scaring him away, because she doesn’t want to hear the truth, she wants to hear something reassuring, so instead she’ll ask, ‘Do you find me attractive?’ or ‘Do you like my new perfume?’
To sum up, dialogue has to show what motivates your character, the strategy employed by your character to get what they want and what response they are looking for.
Keep an eye out for part two on dialogue. In the meantime, buy my book and read it.

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About noorajahangir

Author of the Changeling King and Adventures of Some Kid. Writer of fantasy and sf fiction.

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