No, seriously. I have no fucking idea.
I wrote the above sentence a few weeks ago, when I first decided to write this post exploring what I think it might be. As you may recall, for those devilishly handsome and/or exceedingly beautiful readers who read my post on the negative review I received for The Inhabitors, I got dinged hard on my dialogue because it felt “… forced and unnatural,” like the “… lines seem to be set down simply to push the story forward or tell the reader what’s happening, not to create depth or dimension or build character in any way.”
So, judging by the opinion of that person, dialogue seems to be a way to build character. However, most traditional screenwriting resources also say that dialogue should also, if not shading characters, push the story forward. I seem to have fallen too far on the side of pushing the story forward with my dialogue for The Inhabitors.
Now that I’m a few weeks removed from that review, and I’ve done a bunch of reading, writing, and slowly worked a revision, I have a few ideas as to what makes good dialogue. I think the best advice I’ve heard when it comes to dialogue is that it should sound like the way people talk if they had time to think about what they wanted to say. I don’t remember who said that (I thought it was Raymond Chandler, but I can’t find it attributed to him), but it struck me as a good starting point.
After finding a way to get your characters to speak in a way that sound natural, but is also eloquent and concise (within the realm of the story) it’s time to throw all of that out and add texture. The texture I’m talking about is subtext, memory, and motivation. The best examples I’ve read/heard of dialogue has always been filled with these three things. Characters, like people in everyday life, should talk around topics and only confront them head-on when they’re forced to. People keep secrets. The way they talk about events is dictated by the things they remember about those events. The way someone approaches a subject, especially an important one, is based on what they hope to gain from the conversation. Should they be blunt or flattering? Is option A not working so they switch gears and try option B? All of these things should come into play when writing dialogue.
There can be more to it, of course. Understanding your characters background (geographically, economically, demographically, etc.) can go a long way toward getting a sense of how they talk. Relationships also play a strong role in how characters speak to one another. Are they comfortable with whom they’re speaking with? Just met? Close friends? It all determines what information they will give this other character and how they’re going to give it.
A good example of this is Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ latest. We find out partway through the film that Llewyn’s old music partner killed himself. Later, Llewyn is trying to make a name for himself as a solo act and performs for someone he hopes will become his manager. When he finished the guy tells him he doesn’t see any money in his act, but would be willing to bring him into a band he’s putting together. Llewyn responds that he had a partner once and that it didn’t work out. The scene ends with the manager telling Llewyn it would be a good idea for him to get back together with that partner. Llewyn simply pauses and say, “That’s good advice. Thanks.”
The beauty of this exchange lies in what isn’t said. Of course Llewyn wouldn’t tell a stranger who just rejected him why getting together with his old partner is impossible. Not only would it be a sob story, but Llewyn doesn’t know him. Secondly, the audience doesn’t need that information to understand the subtext behind Llewyn’s rejection of the managers suggestions. We already know his bandmate killed himself and Llewyn won’t perform with anyone else. We also know how painful the reminder is for Llewyn that his partner is gone. In other words, it nails all three of the criteria I think makes good dialogue: subtext, memory, motivation.
I’m still learning how to write strong dialogue. It takes me a lot of thought and effort to write something honest and eloquent. But reading and watching films with good dialogue have helped. Hopefully I can apply those lessons to my own writing.