This is going to be a very brief blog post about a trick I learned from Jill Williamson when writing dialogue.
One of the many ways I like to think of dialogue is like a battle. Two or more people all want something. They all have different personalities, goals, ways of speaking, and feelings.
Think of two medieval soldiers meeting in a ring during a tournament. Soldier A, we'll call him Alan, has just had a few drinks to celebrate a victory during the jousting tournament. He's cocky, overconfident, and feeling very good about himself. His wife he recently married is sitting in the stands, prepared to watch him fight. His personality is naturally outgoing and proud. His goals are to win, but to make a good show out of it to impress his wife.
Robert the knight is a different story. He's a bit older than Alan, but his estate is about to be taken from him by an overbearing lord. His son just got grievously injured during the archery tournament (how that happened, I do not know), so there is no chance of counting on winnings from him. Robert is naturally a bit grumpy, harsh, though exceedingly practical. He is always practicing his skill with a sword, and never takes time for fun. He needs to win so he can get the prize money.
What happens when these two meet in the ring? Well, they are going to clash. At first, Alan might mess around, try a few fancy moves, act a bit reckless to show off. But when he sees the determined and fierce Robert's unrelenting intention to win, he'll probably shape up pretty fast. Robert will likely get annoyed at Alan's lolly-gagging, but he will not act on his frustration other than to more firmly determine to win.
Who wins? I honestly don't know. That's the fun of writing! I'd put my money on Robert though. He has more incentive and experience to win. However, Alan might be young and quick enough to beat him. Like I said, I don't know who would win!
Dialogue is the same way. Writers should think of dialogue much like this to create strong, decisive action through speaking. Even in scenes where it is one character comforting another. Both want something. Character A might want Character B to feel better, while Character B is determined to wallow in self-pity.
And just like a tournament fight, there needs to be a winner. You might have a draw here or there, but then you'll have to return to the conversation later to find a winner then. Here is an excerpt from the rough draft of a new novel I'm writing to demonstrate my point.
The narrator, Star, has been trying to have a conversation with her friend Maggie, but keeps getting distracted by this guy who is unabashedly staring at her. On top of that, he reminds her of something but she can't figure out what.
“Always about what you want, isn't it? You could at least have attempted to be polite...”
“I could have. I didn't. Sincere apologies. I won't ever do it again. And for heaven's sake, how long has that creepy stalker been standing there?”
She finally relents. “The whole time, I think. I don't tend to pay any attention to leather-clad idiots unless it's you.”
I toss her a cheeky grin. I turn completely around and face him, crossing my arms defensively and leaning back, rocking on the heel of my boot. I shove my shades farther down my nose and raise an eyebrow at the weirdo.
No reaction. He just continues staring.
That's it. I've had it with this game. I stomp towards him, ignoring the warning hiss from Maggie.
“You got a problem, buddy?” I say, as I near him. I position myself directly in front of him. He doesn't shift or make room. Just continues staring directly at my face.
“I do not believe so.” His reply is quiet, but thick, and spoken in some semi-English accent I can't place.
“Then why are you staring at me?”
“Would I need to have a 'problem' to stare at you?” He asks.
“Yeah, you'd have to be a pervert to be staring at me for fifteen straight minutes without looking away or coming to say something to me!”
He waves lazily and I notice that his hands are completely covered by a black leather glove. Motorcyclists, perhaps? “You seemed thoroughly occupied with your friend. And I did not stare at you for fifteen minutes. It was more akin to twelve and a half.”
I grit my teeth and glare at this man. He's not flirting. He's not acting particularly creepy-other than the whole staring thing. In fact, he's acting rather bored by the whole ordeal. But I cannot shake this feeling of remembrance...he reminds me of someone... I blink to stop the fog from returning to my vision.
I slam my sunglasses onto the top of my head. “Have we met somewhere?”
He shrugs. “Perhaps. The humanities portion of this campus is not particularly large.”
“So you're a student?”
The Ringwraith wannabe finally stops leaning against the wall. He stands, straightens, and I get a brief glimpse of a pale chin. He nods towards the road. “You're blocking my view.”
My brows lower dramatically and I can feel my face heating up. “Oh, apologies, I thought I was the view!”
“Sorry to disappoint, but no.”
“Who are you?” I growl, willing my hand not to seek comfort in my necklace.
He seems to notice the movement, or rather, the lack thereof. He raises an eyebrow, nods, then turns his back and walks up the sidewalk. I stare at his retreating trench-coat, gaping. Who does that?
“I do not believe you are currently ready to know that,” He calls over his shoulder.
(Please excuse the rough-draftness of the excerpt)
So who do you think won? Personally, I believe it was a draw since the leather creeper just walked off. However, Star probably saw it as a loss. She did not find out who he was, why he was staring at her, and she did not get him to stop staring at her.
Leather creeper probably thought he won. He was obviously trying to figure out if Star was "ready" to know who he was, and he found out that she was not. Or maybe he saw that as a loss. We (myself included lol!) won't know until we meet him again and know his goals.
Do you see how personality played into it too? Star is naturally independent and headstrong and has no qualms confronting strangers. If she were timid or weak, this scene would have never taken place because she would not have confronted him.
We don't know anything about leather-man, but he seems to know how to keep his cool, something Star is not so good at.
And the feelings they had before entering into the conversation played into it too. Star was irritated with her distraction, and with the conversation she was having with Maggie.
So there ya have it! This thought pattern really helped me and I hope it helps you! Again, I apologize for the rough draft excerpt. I would have picked something from Ember Flame or Hail Frost, but this was actually the first dialogue "fight" I've ever written with this tip in mind, so I thought it was more appropriate to use it. :)
Also, here is one of my favorite scenes from The Avengers. Who do you think won? What do you think the goals for each character were? Was it draw because of Iron Man's interruption, or had there already been a winner?