Writing Dialogue Is Easy
What’s difficult is figuring out what your characters want, why they want it, and what’s preventing them from getting it.
All stories are drama, all drama is conflict, all conflict emerges from desire, and all desire is determined by motivation. Thus, for any story to be compelling, its characters must be motivated; they must have goals, and they must be hindered — they must overcome opposition — in their pursuit of such goals.
These principles are well known among storytellers; however, discussions involving them are always about plot. But these principles are equally relevant in dialogue. And applying them to dialogue may make writing dialogue much easier and the dialogue itself more compelling.
For example, a basic scene that incorporates these principles would be as follows; Character A wants one thing from Character B, and Character B is preventing Character A from getting it:
I want this one thing.B
Well, you can’t have it.A
Well, that’s not good enough for me.B
Well, it’s going to have to be, because you can’t have it.A
Give it to me.B
Here are all the reasons why you should give it to me.B
And here are all the reasons why I won’t.A
Fine; I’ll just do something else.B
It won’t work.A
I’ll show you.
When we struggle to write dialogue, we usually do so, not because writing dialogue is difficult (it isn’t), but because we simply don’t know what our characters want and thus what they would or should say to get it. But if we define this for every character in every scene, then we limit what our characters could say, thus enabling us to know what they would and should say; indeed, our characters would and should say only that which either gets them what they want or prevents other characters from getting what they want.
Consider the following examples, in which two characters have opposing desires. I improvised all these examples, simply inventing a desire, assigning it to a character, and then assigning an opposite desire to another character. Each scene took as long to write as they take to read.
Example 1: John wants to talk to Jane, but Jane doesn’t want to talk to John.
Can I talk to you for a second?JANE
Oh, I’m sorry, John, but I’m really busy right now.JOHN
(re: what she’s doing)
Okay, well, so is this.JOHN
Okay, well, how about we schedule a time? I’m available this afternoon. Does that work for you?JANE
I can’t this afternoon; I have plans.JOHN
Okay, well, how about this weekend? I’m available Sunday.JANE
I can’t on Sunday either.JOHN
Okay, well, how about -JANE
John, I don’t want to talk to you.JOHN
Because it’s exhausting; every time we talk, you get mad, and I start crying, and I just don’t want to do it anymore.JOHN
That’s why we need to talk, so we can get over this thing and move on.JANE
I’ve already moved on.JOHN
Well, I haven’t.JANE
That is not my problem.JOHN
And I’m not saying it is; it’s my problem. But I need your help to solve it.JANE
Well, I’m busy right now.JOHN
No, John; I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. I have nothing left to say to you. And if you have more to say to me, I don’t want to hear it. Goodbye.
Example 2: Two boys are disagreeing about which video game to play.
You want to play Smash?ANDREW
Not really; I’m not in the mood.MICHAEL
What? How are you not in the mood for Smash? Who’s not in the mood for Smash?ANDREW
I don’t know; I’ve played it a bunch already, and I’m just sick of it. Let’s play something else.MICHAEL
I don’t know; you pick.MICHAEL
I just did.ANDREW
Fine. Mario Kart.ANDREW
Okay, then I give up.ANDREW
Yeah, me too.MICHAEL
You didn’t even try.ANDREW
Why doesn’t Becky like me?
Example 3: Two musicians are recording a song, and each has different ideas about which instruments should play during the chorus.
Okay, let’s take it from the first chorus, bar twenty.JAMES
With the drums?PETER
Don’t you think that’s too heavy for the first chorus?PETER
Okay, well, I do.PETER
I don’t want to fight with you about every decision I make.JAMES
I’m not fighting with you; I’m just trying to clarify.PETER
Yes you are fighting with me.JAMES
No I’m not.PETER
Every time I suggest something, you object to it.JAMES
Yeah, because every time you suggest something, you completely change the song.PETER
I’m not completely changing the song.JAMES
You’re adding drums to the first chorus!PETER
Yeah, because the first chorus is boring! There’s nothing happening in it; it’s just the Rhodes and a pad.JAMES
Yeah, because it contrasts well with the verse, in which we have bass and percussion, and gives us room to build for the rest of the song.PETER
Build to what? You’re supposed to build to the chorus, and we’re here now, and there’s nothing happening.JAMES
Yeah, because we’re not building to the first chorus; we’re building to the end of the song.PETER
Well, I think it’s boring.JAMES
It was your idea!PETER
And now I think it’s boring. So I want to add drums.JAMES
Okay. Then you can record the song on your own.PETER
I’m not going to fight with you.PETER
No. We obviously have different ideas about how the song should be arranged, so why don’t you just do your version and then I’ll hear it when it’s released.PETER
That’s not how this works; we’re a band.JAMES
What the hell is that supposed to mean?JAMES
Figure it out. I’m done.
In all these examples, my goal was simply to persuade each character to the other’s position while making it increasingly difficult for each to be persuaded. And I did this simply by having each character refute and refuse the other character, line by line. For example, with John and Jane, my goal was to ensure that Jane prevented John from talking to her by denying his requests, evading his offers, making excuses, or simply refusing to speak to him, and that John countered Jane with increasingly stronger attempts.
You’ll notice, however, that why each character wants what they want is absent from my prompts; I discovered reasons as I went along. This was deliberate, to demonstrate that writing compelling and complete dialogue requires knowing only minimal information about each character: that they want something. However, although it’s good practice, writing scenes without knowing why each character wants what they want is unrealistic, impractical, and unreliable. Instead, we should specify our characters’ desires, as this will at least make writing scenes much easier.
For example, consider a scene in which two college roommates have competing but vague desires: Mark wants to play guitar, but Luke wants to read a book. The implied conflict in this situation is that Mark’s playing will distract Luke’s reading. And although, as with the previous examples, this conflict is sufficient for writing a decent scene, its lack of specificity may cause us to wander, as we don’t know why each character wants what they want and thus will struggle to know what each character would or should say to get it. Further, the scene may fail to be interesting, as there are no stakes for the characters and thus no obvious or compelling reasons for either to be motivated to fulfill their desires.
In contrast, if we specify Mark’s playing as practicing and Luke’s reading as studying, we imply both motivation and consequence, as people who practice or study do so to prepare for performances, enabling them either to achieve some higher goal or, at least, to avoid humiliation and failure. We also narrow the options for what each character could say as well as enable the scene to be more interesting and compelling by introducing stakes.
Specifying desires, then, requires understanding our characters’ motivations, or knowing why our characters want what they want. However, the degree of this specificity, or the resolution of this understanding, needs to be only what it needs to be — meaning, to write compelling scenes, we do not (necessarily) need to know all the reasons why our characters want what they want; we need to know only the reasons that are relevant to the scene. For example, Mark may want to practice guitar so he can win an audition, so he can study at a prestigious conservatory, so he can become a professional musician, so he can prove his viability as an artist to his incredulous father. And Luke may have similarly complex reasons for wanting to study. But none of this is (explicitly) relevant to the present scene, as, even if these reasons are relevant to the story, and even if our readers are aware of these reasons, this scene is not (explicitly) about any of them; this scene is simply about Mark wanting to practice guitar while being shushed by Luke, who wants to study — meaning, any dialogue written within this limited context will be, on its own, comprehensive and compelling.
In other words, keep it simple: what one thing do your characters want in each scene, why do they want it, and what or who is preventing them from getting it? Once you’ve answered these questions, the dialogue will take care of itself.
There is of course more to this topic, and I’m aware that not all scenes are “I want” scenes like those I’ve presented as examples here, but most scenes are. And maybe I’ll cover other types of scenes in the future. Nevertheless, I hope you found this information useful. See you next time.