by Ali McCart, Executive Editor, Indigo
I often find myself wishing that conversations I overhear on the bus were more like good dialogue.
I know, that’s contrary to what your college writing professor told you, right? If your professor was like one of mine, he ranted something like, “Your dialogue should sound like real conversations. Get off campus! At least ride the bus around town or go to the mall. Listen to the way people who are not twenty years old talk, for crying out loud.”
I’m not saying my professor was wrong—or that yours was either. It’s important to listen to the way people talk and to try to emulate its essence in your writing. The key word here is essence.
Maybe I’m just riding the wrong bus, but the conversations I overhear sound mostly like this:
“Can you believe the way Sandra glared at me when Mark gave me the Josten account?”
“You deserve it way more than she does.”
“Tell me about it.”
There’s very little body language because—let’s face it—how emphatic can your hand gestures be when your shoulders are squinched against either a handrail or a stranger?
While that’s an example of realistic dialogue, it’s not very interesting on the page, is it? That’s because it doesn’t even acknowledge the two main goals of written dialogue: to move the story forward and to be interesting.
The way good writers accomplish both these goals is by infusing their dialogue with conflict, implication, and subtext. The way bad writers fail at these goals is by beating readers over the head.
It’s all too easy to find examples of this in movies, and Cracked.com’s “The Top 5 Worst Lines of Dialogue (From Movies That Don’t Actually Suck)” backs me up here. Some of these movies are international favorites, so it may be hard for you to read this list. But do it in the name of improving your dialogue skills:
5. Garden State
Zach Braff: Good luck exploring the infinite abyss.
Abyss Scientist: Thank you. Hey! You, too.
Cracked.com: Get it? “You too!” But wait, Braff isn’t a crater scientist? What could this mean? OH! It’s LIFE! Life is like an infinite abyss! Because it’s big and rocky and unknown and has two scientists living in it.
4. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Padme: I don’t know you anymore. Anakin, you’re breaking my heart.
Anakin: I don’t want to hear any more about Obi-Wan. The Jedi turned against me. Don’t you turn against me.
Cracked.com: In Lucas’ defense, at the end of Revenge of the Sith, Padme—as diagnosed by a technologically retarded robot—does in fact die from a “broken heart.” Lucas just couldn’t afford to be too subtle in his wording.
I’ll stop there because you get the idea. The point is, bad movie dialogue is a lot like bad book dialogue, and if you don’t allow a little implication and subtlety into it while simultaneously building or resolving conflict, Cracked.com is going to get you. Or your audience will stop reading and just eavesdrop on the bus conversations instead.
If only there were an easy way to see your dialogue acted out so you could gauge its effectiveness… Oh wait, that’s exactly what Indigo’s Dialogue Clinic is!
Ali McCart is the executive editor at Indigo. She spends much of her time—both on and off the clock—evaluating dialogue in memoirs, novels, short stories, movies, television shows, and plays. And she has long since gotten off campus to observe conversations among people of all ages in various settings.