Now, on to a long-overdue rant about dialogue.
I’ve said here once or twice or thrice that dialogue can make or break a story. That’s because dialogue is how we learn about the characters, and they’re what the story’s all about. So if my dialogue is good, it can lift an okay story that much higher. If it’s bad, it can sink even the most Pulitzer-worthy piece.
A key element in great dialogue is subtext. A couple years back I got to interview actor Chris Eigeman about his screenwriting/ directing debut, and he told me a wonderful quote by Edith Wharton, which I’m now about to butcher for you because I’m quoting someone who quoted a quote to me. According to Wharton, dialogue is the foam at the tip of a wave. The wave—all the stuff under the foam and supporting it—is your character, their backstory, their motivation, and everything going on in the story. But no matter how big that wave is, the thing we all see--the thing that always draws our eye—is that foam.
On the flipside of that, most bad dialogue has no subtext. To stick with our previous imagery, if good dialogue is foam on the tip of a wave, bad dialogue is a stagnant tidepool with no motion and no life in it. Not all of it mind you—some people are very creative and unique in their badness. But I’d say a good sixty or seventy percent of the awful stuff I’ve seen would vanish if people weren’t so on the nose with their writing.
I’ve mentioned that phrase a few times here, and some of you may have seen it on feedback forms (for other people’s manuscripts, of course). On the nose dialogue is when someone says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety or characterization whatsoever. It comes across as flat because... well, there’s no depth to it. There's nothing implied, no innuendoes, no meaning at all past the words themselves.
If you think about it, most of us are subtle in real life. We prefer to imply things rather than say them aloud, and when we do speak a lot of us skirt around the things we’re trying to say. We’re inherently big on subtext and body language, and people who are too straightforward kind of creep us out. Consider some recent conversations you’ve had. Think about what you said vs. what you meant.
There was a wonderful show on years ago called Keen Eddie, where the Human Target was forced into sharing a London apartment with the Baroness from that god-awful G.I. Joe movie. At least once an episode they’d shout “I hate you!” “I hate you, too!” back and forth at each other, and while it was pretty dead-on the first few times, it soon became more of a habit with them. Eventually, even though they kept using the same phrase, it became pretty clear they didn’t hate each other at all, and were using “hate” instead of another word.
And then Fox cancelled Keen Eddie. Because that’s how things go when your show’s on Fox.
But I digress.
Check out this example.
“Hey, fellas,” said Wakko, “what do you think of my new painting?” He turned the easel to his brother and sister.
“It’s very, ummm... colorful,” said Dot after a few moments.
“Yeah,” said Yakko. “Yeah, I was going to go with colorful, too.”
Now, considering that I didn’t really describe it at all, do you think Wakko’s painting is any good? Do you think Dot and Yakko like it? Probably not, because most of us pick up on little things. There was that pause before they answered, and the kind of stammer to Dot’s response. We’ve all been in this situation, and we all understand the little white lies (or maybe big, whopping lies, depending on the painting) that are being told here.
Here’s a few more examples of statements with subtext...
“Rico, you’re like family to me. That’s why I’ve chosen you for this job, because I know you won’t disappoint me.”
“Actually, the partners and I have talked about it, David, and we feel you’d probably be more comfortable in a different position—something with an easier pace.”
“Hey, it’s not too late. Would you like to come up for a cup of coffee?”
There’s a hidden message to each of these statements, and again it’s one most of you probably picked up on immediately, even out of context. This is the other thing about subtext—it lets the reader feel smart. When my characters are spelling out every single thing they’re thinking and doing, it comes across like I’m over-simplifying things for my audience. Another way to say “over-simplifying,” of course, is “dumbing down,” and we all love it when people think they need to dumb stuff down for us, right...?
I’m not saying every single line has to be packed with subtext, mind you. That kind of writing becomes impenetrable because it requires too much effort on the part of the reader. As I said above, though, consider how often your own words are layered in real life.
Because when your characters start talking like real people, that’s when they become real people.
Speaking of which, next time I wanted to talk real quick about reality vs. reality.
Until then, go write.