Character Dialogue: A Game of Goals

In all forms of character writing, be it stage plays, screen plays, novels, video games or any other kind of medium where two different characters converse with one another, massive potential exists for fantastic dialogue. The act of putting two characters in the same space and seeing how they react to each other is the heart of good drama. When well-written characters who have their own histories, personalities, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses enter into a conversation with another character with a different background, there lies a great opportunity for a good scene. What makes the scene more powerful is when the characters have their own individual goals for the conversation. This is where we as writers really get to prove that we know our characters inside and out. Here are some things to consider when writing dialogue.

Purposes of Dialogue

Dialogue, or a conversation between two characters in a scene, can serve many purposes. Well-written dialogue takes many things into consideration, and does so in a natural way that seems like real human conversation. Good dialogue should have many goals to consider:

  • Goal: Dialogue should advance the plot.
    • Especially in shorter format works, you will need to make the dialogue work to keep the plot moving forward. Have you ever read or watched anything and thought “what the heck do I care about this conversation?” It’s very rare in mainstream writing, but there can be dialogue in a scene that just doesn’t seem to serve any purpose for the over-all plot or subplot. It takes the audience right out of the emotional investment to the work when this happens, and it can easily cause pacing problems, no matter what genre the work falls into.
    • Ask yourself: why does this conversation matter in the long run? Does it set up something that will come into play later in the story? Does it really help transition us from one scene to another? Does it introduce anything important about the issues these characters are facing as part of the plot? What does this scene really achieve that makes it an important one to keep in the story?
  • Goal: Dialogue should establish the characters.
    • As the audience, we do not generally have time, nor the desire to sit and get to know every single character before they enter their first dialogue in a story. Main characters are the exception to this, and longer form stories such as television shows or book series also might see more minor characters getting their time to shine, but this is not the case with most of the characters in the ensemble. We don’t need to observe the entire history of most characters in order to make them compelling. Dialogue can do this.
    • In visual mediums, the actor provides a lot of the information about the character by the way they portray them. This includes body language, speech patterns, etc. In writing, it must be done in descriptions of the character and the things they do while talking. Aside from that, simply the words the characters choose to say given a certain prompt will be enough to understand roughly who they are as a person.
  • Goal: Dialogue should provide “just enough” exposition.
    • Exposition is basically a writer’s way of establishing the world of the story, in this case through a character speaking. Exposition can also be called “fluff”, especially if there’s too much of it. Exposition mostly serves the audience in a way to provide background about the world in which the characters live, as well as the history of the characters. In copious amounts, this becomes extremely odd and unnatural to witness, especially if the characters know each other well prior to the conversation. If it starts to sound like a commercial that’s trying to sell you something, people catch onto that very quickly.
    • You can include bits and pieces of the world without a character expressly saying “this is the information about the world in which we live.” It’s enough for Hawkeye to casually mention “it’s just like in Budapest” to Black Widow and not explain what actually happened there – they both already know why that statement is true. We learn from that saying that the two of them have been in situations like this before, and that they already share a kinship.
  • On top of these goals as a writer, your dialogue should also consider the goals for the conversation of each character, and what that means.
    • In all scenes, you should consider each character’s motive. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something active or passive. Dialogue, especially, needs to bring those motives into it – especially in important scenes where there’s an act reversal in close proximity. Each character has their own goals in these important dialogues, and what we see in this exchange when their goals are at odds is a battle of words between them. Well-written dialogue with conflict will have several beats in it, where one side is winning the conversation, which then swaps to the other person winning. Eventually, someone has to win, even if it doesn’t convince anyone to change their mind.
    • Actors pick up on this very well and are able to portray these beats of the dialogue with expertise. It’s harder to convey in writing, but still something we should strive to do. Depending on the voice you use for your writing, you have various ways to do this, but the challenge will still be there for you to conquer.

Where to Go From Here

If you really want to become an expert at dialogue, try studying stage plays. Dialogue is the main tool that playwrights have in their belt, and though actors and directors will have different interpretations of the writing, the words on the page is really all they have. Actors in stage plays don’t usually get the luxury of having a ton of stage directions for them to follow when it comes to how their character feels. They have to dig deep into the character and determine what they mean by every word they say.

When you can get to the point where you can have two characters talking in a way that carries the plot forward, gives just enough background and exposition, all with just the exchange of words and nothing else, while seeming like a “real life, organic conversation,” then you have conquered the art of well-written dialogue. I should be able to understand most of what I need to know about a character by the things they say in dialogue, and the character should seem like a real person and not simply materialized plot elements. Good luck!

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