I love dialogue. For me, the heart of a story and the way you can best get to know characters is through the way they speak to each other and the way they try to communicate with the world at large.
I was raised on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve seen every episode multiple times, I can quote large swaths of dialogue and I feel like I grew up with these characters. I also recognise I’m a gigantic nerd, thanks for pointing that out.But what has that got to do with dialogue?
Everything. I grew up in a world where Buffyspeak (Yes, that’s a thing) was normal. People made up words when they needed them, they twisted the meanings of things till they screamed for mercy and told you that if you would only spare them they’d sell out the weird Mrs Malaprop down the street because she looks all wired and stiff… I also grew up in a world where people came up with metaphors that didn’t always work. But that was okay. Things didn’t always need to turn out all workilicious and stuff.
One of the reasons the characters in Buffy have such unique dialogue—especially for characters on a television show—is because half of it doesn’t sound scripted. If you listen to people in real life (weird concept, I know) you recognise very quickly that when people actually talk they don’t make sense. There are weird pauses everywhere, ‘um’s and ‘ah’s are common (I once had a class where the lecturer used the word ‘um’ 21 times in a minute. I counted), sentences don’t get finished and ideas are lost midstream because the speaker got bored and began thinking about something else. It happens and it’s a wonder that we can understand each other at all with all of these blocks and distractions.
But scripted dialogue—whether in television shows or in books—doesn’t have this and for good reason. Reading about someone stumbling through a conversation elongated by pauses and fillers like ‘um’ and ‘ah’ would be excruciating. Not only that, but it would make everything unclear. Characters and dialogue are there to propel the story forward. If their message is garbled then the story becomes garbled and everything ends in a terrible mess. Dialogue in no way resembles real life. When writing dialogue characters can be constantly witty, they can come up with amazing one liners on the spot (rather than an hour later as in real life) and your audience accepts that.
It’s part of the magic of storytelling. If you tell us these characters always speak like that then we’ll believe it.
So what makes Buffy different? The characters are always witty (unless they’re purposefully not) they always have the right things to say when they need to be said and their dialogue helps to move the plot forward. But their dialogue is also informed by who they are. I’ve searched the interwebs to see if I could find some examples but it seems the copyright fairy has been narky lately so instead I’ll just quote an example and see if I can explain what I mean.
For those who’ve lived under a rock, Buffy is a sixteen year old raised on pop culture and malls and fashion and all that good stuff. She’s also the chosen one and hunts and kills vampires and demons (and did so before it was cool). Her watcher (person who watches out for her, helps with training and does lots of research) is an English librarian named Giles. Giles uses big words from time to time leading Buffy to admonish him
Buffy: Speak English! Not whatever they speak in, um—
Have you ever watched a little kid when they’re still learning how to speak properly? They know what they’re trying to say and their mind is going at a million miles a minute trying to work out the words but there’s a confusion because their mouth just can’t keep up. By the time they’ve said the first word their mind has moved through the next three concepts and everything just pours out in one big wad of confusion. With Buffy the problem is the opposite. Buffy is inexperienced, she talks about things that she hasn’t quite worked out yet or she’s got gaps in knowledge that she need to work around. She also has a habit of speaking before she thinks. It’s that glorious mess that affects her as she speaks. She just wants Giles to use words that she perceives as ‘normal’ and not his customary language. Instead, because she didn’t really think through the phrasing she gets caught out. She then follows this all up with the best bit of advice anyone has given anyone about dating:
Buffy: You just say, ‘Hey, I got a thing. You maybe have a thing. Maybe we could have a thing?’
When we don’t have words for something or we believe that what we’re saying is awkward one of the easiest things to do is replace the word with something like ’thing’ or, my personal favourite, ‘thingamadooba’. Words like that are peppered throughout Buffy along with countless situations where they just straight up make up language like here:
Buffy: I spent a good part of my allowance on this new cream rinse, and it’s neither creamy nor rinsey.
In Buffy when they stumble around with language constantly and real life this is generally where awkward silences come from. However, in the Buffy universe when that happens it always seems to end in hilarity. Buffy makes it believable.
Believable dialogue is one of the most important things you can have in a story. Dialogue is how your characters communicate with each other and, a lot of the time, with the reader. Just like the way Buffy speaks tells us a whole lot about her character and the way she thinks about the world, the way your characters speak can tell your readers what’s going on in that character’s head.
One of the most interesting aspects of character expression through dialogue is what I like to call touchstone phrases (I’ve got no idea if that’s a thing or if that’s even what they’re called. If you know leave a comment and help me out.) They’re phrases characters keep on returning to. You can see this a lot in real life. For example, I once met a guy who kept on saying the words ‘and I won’t forget it’. Every time he brought up something from his past it would be prefaced with that phrase. After talking to him a little more I found out that he’d always had trouble in school because he had a terrible memory. Whenever he brought up things from his past and said those words it was like he was reinforcing in his mind that he wouldn’t forget this, that this memory was important to him and he wouldn’t forget it. When people say stuff, especially the unconscious little things it can give a little insight into how their mind works.
That said, I also know I went through a phase where I said the words ‘and all that jazz’ after every second sentence so take that as you will.
The way characters speak can also help us understand how people relate to each other. If one character is talking to another whom they respect and admire it’ll be different than if they were talking to someone they hated. Compare how you talk to your best friend to how you talk to a complete stranger. Those differences in dialogue can really help to express who your characters are and what’s important to them.
One thing dialogue should not do is be an excuse for exposition. This is where a character suddenly comes out with either a long explanation of the story or an examination of its themes or maybe even a discussion about their motivations. You know the ones— when a character states that they’re upset because of these exact reasons and this is how they’re going to go about fixing that. Or the ones where a character has seemingly supernatural perception about another character and explains their motivations.
No one speaks like that. Not even in dialogue. When people communicate they do so indirectly. It’s a very rare (and often very rude) person who tells people exactly what they’re thinking and why. And that’s great! Miscommunication and half-truths are what great stories are made from.
Dialogue should help your readers through a story. They should be able to hear the words coming out of the character’s mouths the same way they can hear real people talking. Except better because of all the reasons we’ve discussed. Exposition kills a story faster than a big killy death-ray.
Some questions to ask when writing dialogue
- Does it sound real? Read it out aloud. If you stumble over the words or if you can’t imagine a real person saying it, it probably doesn’t belong.
- Does it sound like the character? The way we talk is profoundly affected by who we are. The same way Buffy trips over her own words because she’s too busy rushing headlong into things without thinking and the way touchstone phrases help to express what’s important to us, dialogue expresses character.
- Is it clear? Dialogue is fun and it helps to flesh out your characters but it also needs to help fuel the story. Quirky dialogue isn’t enough.
- Is it pure exposition? If your character is simply doing an information dump or explaining the plot because you’re either too lazy to show your audience or don’t trust your audience to understand what’s going on without you explaining it there’s a BIG problem.
Because I was raised on Buffyspeak dialogue is one of my favourite things. Dialogue helps my characters have their own individual voices while also allowing me to inject a metric tonne of humour into my work. Dialogue makes characters more human and makes it more likely that your readers will not only love them but also want to listen to them chapter after chapter.
In Summary (The TL;DR version)
Dialogue is important. It’s how your characters express themselves both to each other and to the reader. By giving your characters unique and realistic dialogue you can help to make the story more real for your readers. Also, if you haven’t already, you should watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. GoGoGo!