Good dialogs can make or break a story. The funny thing is, one of the things that make dialog great, is that you don’t notice it.
The hallmarks of good dialog
I would say the three defining things about good dialog are that it should be transparent, should have a good voice, and should sharpen conflict. I’ll explain what I mean with all three.
Of course, that isn’t to say that other things don’t matter. Description is also very important. If you don’t explain where characters are, you’ll end up with talking heads, instead of talking characters, or with white room syndrome. And without a plot, or well-crafted characters, there are no conflicts to drive the dialog, or arcs to resolve.
However, bad dialog does stand out like a sore thumb, while a lack of description is often survivable for a story. And I posit that dialog separates a movie like Die Hard from ‘just another action’ movie.
So, on to the hallmarks of good dialog. Be warned, the more you know of the mechanics of writing, the more you’ll start to notice when it’s done wrong. These days, about half of what I see on TV makes me face-palm or sigh, or just turn off the TV. This doesn’t happen in books so often, but I have a better nose for good books than good movies or TV shows, I think.
The best dialog is the dialog that you don’t notice. That sounds a bit weird, maybe, but it’s actually very important. I’ve talked before about purple prose, and bad dialog can feel like spoken purple prose. When you actually read it out loud, or if it’s in a movie, it sounds terrible.
Have a look at some of the technobabble in Star Trek Discovery for examples of why this really isn’t a good idea. And yes, technobabble in Star Trek is not as bad as some of the crap you can find elsewhere. Not by a longshot.
The opposite end of the spectrum of bad dialog is ‘too lifelike’. If you talk to somebody in real life, your dialog will be meandering, with ‘ehm’ and ‘er’ sounds in it, and half-finished sentences. In writing, and in movies, that’s not how you do things. Just like stage-fighting is not real fighting, stage-dialog is not real dialog. It’s should be more crisp, and to-the-point. If you were to inject real-life speech, you would end up something approaching a Trump speech crossed with your most boring teacher from high school.
Both of these extremes are wrong because the way the dialog is written draws attention to itself. It should be transparent, driving the story without making you notice it’s writing.
Good dialog is unmistakably attached to a certain character. Really good dialog can be recognized, even if you were to remove everything but the dialog itself, including the “John said” and “Alice replied” parts. To do this, the dialog needs to have enough personality to characterize the person saying it. And that is hard.
I used to write a web comic with stick figures. The character pictures were not that expressive, because — you know — stick figures. But over time I managed to put a lot of voice into the dialog. At some point I would write a sentence for the character Frank, who is nearly identical to Hank, but I’d think ‘no, this is not something Frank would say, this is a Hank line’. That’s what a writer is aiming for.
Some of the worst mistakes in this regard, occur when a writer has this really good line that they feel they have to insert, even though it just doesn’t fit with the characters. It’s often jokes, but not always.
To me an example springs to mind of a scene in the James Bond movie Skyfall. Bond has a fling with a woman who is then killed — one of those tropes of Bond movies. The villain puts a glass of Scotch on her head and Bond is forced to take aim at it. After a short exchange, the villain shoots the girl in the head, dropping the glass. Bond responds “Waste of good scotch” and attacks the villain. This one line feels so out of touch with the character, it was just… Well, I hated that part in an otherwise okay movie. And it’s not even a good line.
Sometimes it seems it’s just two characters talking, but good dialog furthers the story, more specifically, it sharpens conflict.
Plot is the thing that drives character arcs, while internal motivations and external events drive a character to a crucial moment of change. Those external events are often a form of conflict, and that’s where dialog comes in. That brings the conflict into sharp focus. Like a camera zooming in to a blurry close-up and then jumping into sharp focus.
Without conflict, dialog is very boring. And without dialog, conflict is very boring. Look at Die Hard again. The action sequences are interspersed with people talking. Conversations between John McClane and Gruber. Conversations between him and Al Powell. And conversations with a number of others. The dialog ratchets up the tension, until the conflict leads to (violent) action.
Now contrast this with something like XXX: Return of Xander Cage. That movie has terrible one-liner dialog that doesn’t focus conflict, so much as have characters grandstanding without resolving or focusing anything. It just fills the time between action scenes with quips and chest-thumping. This not only makes the dialogs boring, it makes the action toothless.
The next time you watch a movie, or read a book, really look at the dialog.
Is it any good? Does it focus conflict, or make it more bland? And would you know it was the character speaking, even if the text was handed to you on a piece of paper without context? You might be surprised by how much these answers correlate with your enjoyment of the story.