Deep Dialogue Workshop presented by Jon Hopkins
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
Usually in a workshop about dialogue you learn basics such as how to use “he said,” and punctuation. But you want to go deeper than that, and expand your mastery. Dialogue is action. It has purpose and meaning. It has conflict. Conflict can be physical, social, personal, and private. A complex story involves all of these. What lies beneath the action? What is Said? Unsaid? And the Unsayable? Dialogue shows readers how we lie to others and to ourselves. How we love, fight, or see the world. We learn what should be said in good and bad circumstances. We see ourselves in the mirror of dialogue.
“The writer must personalize the role with a unique, character-specific voice worded in the text. Second, whether mental or vocal, whether thought inside the mind or said out into the world, all speech is an outward execution of an inner action. All talk responds to a need, engages a purpose, and performs an action. No matter how seemly vague and airy a speech may be, no character ever talks to anyone, even to himself, for no reason, to do nothing. Therefore, beneath every line of character talk, the writer must create a desire, intent, and action. That action then becomes the verbal tactic we call dialogue.” Dialogue by Robert McKee (much of these ideas are what I learned from this book. I do not claim this as my own. Permission granted from publisher.)
All of writing is action/reaction involving conflict. It is the same with dialogue. Dialogue is action. To say something is to do something. “No one talks to anyone, even to himself for no reason to do nothing.” (in writing) There is intention, or need, or want behind what is said. And most of all, it must move the scene!
Dia = “through” and legein = “speech” It is doing some action through speaking.
There are different kinds of dialogue such as: inner talk, talking to someone else, and talking to the reader. Even inner talk is a dialogue. It is a conversation with yourself. Talking to self involves inner conflict. Even a monologue is a dialogue. You are speaking to the reader. Dialogue includes things that are:
Said: to others. This shows who the person is and what is their social status, education, wit, and emotions.
Unsaid: inner voice to self. Thoughts and feelings that the character withholds. When they talk, the reader looks past the words to sense the meaning of the things left unsaid.
Unsayable: subconscious that cannot be expressed in words. “A person is not known by words but by deeds.” Words ARE deeds. When you say something, you do something. The reader knows what is going on inside the character by what the character does. Sometimes the things that cannot ever be spoken come out in the little nuance of a gesture, touch, or a smile.
Three Functions of Dialogue:
- Exposition: Tis is what we call “Telling.” Exposition is a description or dialogue about a place, time, or people. It is a word picture that can express more than the eye can see. i.e. “Her eyes are like gazing longingly into a good cup of herbal tea.” Not all exposition is equal in importance. Stress the things the reader needs to know to push the story along. (i. e. my roman street scene was cut and recut and recut.) Don’t tell facts to a character that they already know but you want the reader to know. It is just you sharing how smart you are. Reminiscing is dishonest if it is only exposition. Exposition must be invisible. The reader is eaves-dropping.
Pacing and timing: Too little exposition confuses the reader. Too much bores them. Let them know when they need to know. Maintain curiosity and empathy. Make them wait. Make them wonder. Ask questions. Only tell them what they need to know when they need to know it. Sneak it in somewhere else. If it happens in the scene and it advances the scene then use it. Reveal things slowly. Plant and payoff. Let the character reveal things as ammunition to get what they want. Deep character can come when you reveal past events, and feeling. Revelations, secrets, and dark truths should be timed. Secrets come out when you have a choice and choose the lesser of two evils. Read Jachin’s secret. Chp 49 pg 291
- Characterization: Speech shows who your characters are. Who they seem to be on the outside, and who they really are. Characterization shows appearance in, and out. This too can be done through dialogue. Dialogue gets us close to the character and their intimate thoughts and feelings. True character is revealed when they are put in a corner and must make a choice or take action to pursue desire.
Vocabulary is important for your characters in dialogue. When writing a dialogue between two characters, you should hear the character’s voices: (different than authors voice)
First person= “I” or “me.” This is not a perfect witness to the happenings. i.e. Hunger games. Focus is on themselves, their feelings and observations only.
Third person. Omniscience …not a character. At a distance uses her “he” and “they.” This writing knows all, hears all, sees all.
Third person objective = observes but never interprets.
Third person subjective = shows the characters inner life and jumps heads. Thoughts and feelings of more than one character. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is an example… or Princes of Albion.
Second person= “you” Most dialogue is first person although it could be second person.
Use dialogue: To intrigue. To convince. To individualize. To uncover a character’s inner life and seek the underlying action. To help with this label it with a gerund and an active (ing) phrase. (more on this later)
- Action: Physical action– gestures and tasks. Mental action – change in attitude belief understanding etc. Verbal action– What do they want at this moment? What action would they take to get that? What words would they use? Who would they say it to? Dialogue is action; however, it must ring true.
What breaks the flow?
Incredibility: This is not meaningless conversation. It should sound spontaneous. If I were my character what would I do in this situation? All characters are me.
Empty talk: Do not tell something the character already knows.
Overly emotional talk: The words are greater than the actual feeling.
Overly knowing talk: Know what your characters know. It amazes me how some TV shows they know everything. And…they always know what kind of flowers it is? Don’t interject the authors own knowledge or research into the dialogue when that person should not know the information.
Overly perceptive talk: Do they know themselves better than you know yourself, or better than the Psychiatrist?
Know the difference between excuse and motivation: Sexual abuse is overused as motivation. Death of a mother or father or both as enticing incident is cliché. Motivation is basic. Hunger, sleep, food, and love. Motivation is subtext. Don’t put it in dialogue unless necessary.
When someone can’t face the truth, they make excuses. Excuse is what the character tells the other characters. The excuse masks the motive. (i. e. I love this land.)
Melodrama: This is dialogue that uses over expression and under motivation. Would my character understate his action, or state it? Different people are moved by different motives.
Don’t use cliché’s: A cliché’ is an overused phrase. Be creative. (i.e. Her eyes are blue like the sky.)
Word choice: An emotional person uses short words and active, short sentences. Intelligent people use more complex words that show they are well-read, and have better vocabulary. When conflict builds, people get monosyllabic and dumb.
Active verses passive voice: Active dialogue uses action verbs. Passive talk uses linking verbs am, is, are, was, were, be, and been. Passivity really slows things down. Watch for passivity hidden in gerund phrases. The state of being verb connects to an “ing” word. Test it with a direct verb. Badly written dialogue is literal. It means what it says and no more.
Showing vs telling: Don’t force the characters to stop and talk about something. That is telling. They expound on their life history, thoughts, feelings, loves and hates, past and present for no reason. Telling erases subtext. Don’t tell the reader what to feel or what the person is feeling. They should see that in the action and subtext. A spokesperson “talking head” is boring. Telling stops the scene and destroys pace. It is like putting the child on your lap to explain the obvious.
Dialogue is showing, although sometimes you can sneak in some telling esp. if you use a “dumb puppet” to ask questions.
Writing on the nose: My son says everything he thinks. He tells you exactly how he feels. And he can’t keep it in his head. If you speak your character’s deepest thoughts and feelings aloud, it is pour writing. It is speech that is unlike anyone talks. It makes the character two-dimensional only. Most of these insights are below what the character knows about themselves. It is not conscious. Let the reader discover it. Dialogue implies, not tells, nor explains.
No conflict: What is underneath the spoken, the desires, the real meaning? A good conversation has conflict with desires that move the story along and gets the reader to turn the page.
The beat: Things put around or in the dialogue to tell the reader who is saying it, what they are doing when they say it, or how they are saying it (if necessary). Usually, place the action before the talk or it sounds like a Kung Fu film.
Narration: This is outside the scene. It is telling.
Inner dialogue: This is puzzling out, rerunning a memory, building up self, fantasizing about the past present and future…NOT description or exposition.
Indirect dialogue: This is description. It is when someone or the narrator tells what someone else said.
How to create dialogue:
A line of dialogue has design: It pivots around its key term; the one essential to its meaning. Suspense and tension is created when the conversation ends with the reader saying, “What happens next? What will they do? Feel? How will it all turn out?”
A periodic sentence withholds its core idea until the final word. Delay the meaning till the last. “If you want me to do it, why did you give me that ________?”
Make meaning wait. Reader must keep going to get to the end of the dialogue. This is also used in jokes: the “punch line.”
Cumulative sentence puts key word up front. Then develop or modify the point. “The last time I saw him…” vs. “He looked like this and did thus etc. etc. ad infinitum the last time I saw him.”
Balanced sentence: This puts the core words in the middle of the dialogue sentence.
Vary your techniques, if not, it becomes fake.
Say fewest words as possible. Be concise. There is nothing unnecessary, even in dialogue.
A pause tightens tension. Make the dialogue flow and save the pause for the right moment. To make reader think “Oh no, what will happen next?” Putting on the breaks gets attention. Interrupt, squelch, hold back.
Sometimes silence or a non-answer works. Write for the eye and not the ear on that. Use facial expression or gesture. Silence invites the reader in to listen more closely.
Is there a physical action that would say this better than with words?
Speak your dialogue: Or better yet, record it and play it back. When I did an audio of my book it was enlightening. I got to know my characters intimately.
Use of “ing” to determine what is going on. Not just “this is what they really said.” It must have a reason. Examples of how to do this:
Excerpt from Chapter one from The Golden Cord:
Caradoc doused his grandfather’s hot gaze in the water of his tempered pride. He reluctantly sheathed his sword. He was about to be publicly castigated, but it didn’t matter. Punishment meant nothing to him… anymore.
“How many men have you killed, boy?” The King said. CHALLENGING
Caradoc planted his feet and glowered. STANDING GROUND
“I have killed hundreds! And, boy, they weren’t half senseless drunks or half-drowned farmers. They were strong warriors worthy of the fight.” COMPAIRING, CUTTING HIM DOWN
Caradoc gripped his sword. CROSS-CHALLENGING, PREPARING TO FIGHT.
“When I was your age, boy, I led men into battle against the Trinovauntes. I had a wife, a hillfort, and responsibilities. I cared about my family.” CRITISIZING, YOU ARE UNCARING.
Caradoc scoffed. UNBELIEVING
“If you continue down this course—the roads before you will only be paved with the deaths of men who won’t follow you. Can’t win love through threats, boy. Because I serve the people, they serve me. Men follow me because I show purpose. Every life means something, boy. Every soul has a purpose.” He paused again. “What is your purpose, boy?” QUESTIONING, DISPARAGING HIM BECAUSE HE IS AIMLESS IN HIS ACTIONS
Caradoc shut him out. He’d heard it before. He didn’t care. He turned to leave. FIGHTING BACK WITH ACTIONS. TURNS HIS BACK.
Tasciovaunus clutched Caradoc’s shoulder. Turned him around. “I’m talking to you!” CHALLENGING, SQUELCHING CARADOC’S REBELLIOUSNESS, THREATENING
Caradoc spat. “I have my own purpose.” ANSWERING SMUGLY, GRASPING POWER BACK
“Right now, your purpose is to follow me and do as I say.” PUTTING HIM BELOW HIM
Caradoc opened his mouth. ARGUING
Tasciovaunus back-handed him. “All I want to hear from you is your consent.” CONCLUDING
Caradoc swallowed hard. The men around him seemed to take pleasure in this exchange. They had seen it often.
Tasciovaunus walked to his horse and got an axe from his pack. Tossing the axe to his grandson, he pointed to the carpinus tree. “I have need of this.” GIVING DIRECTION, TESTING
“This tree?” STILL QUESTIONING AUTHORITY
“Up the tree—if you can climb—and start shearing the limbs. Start at the top and proceed down to the crotch. Keep it straight. If you can do that. It will be used in the new longhouse for my throne .” SHOWING IMPORTANCE OF HIS POSITION STILL. BELITTLEING, TREATING CARADOC LIKE A CHILD.
Caradoc unsheathed his sword and laid it on the ground. Biting his tongue, he grabbed one of the limbs and climbed the carpinus tree. RELINQUISHING POWER… FOR NOW…
Tasciovaunus added, “A throne you will never sit on.” FINAL CUT DOWN
Conclusion: say something funny or a good quote….
“Dialogue is what two characters do to each other.” Elizabeth Bowen