Dialogue Basics: Part Two

Writers can pull all sorts of shenanigans and assorted monkeyshines to cover up technical flaws in plotting and other aspects of storytelling, but dialogue exposes all. There's no place to hide. Authentic, snappy dialogue earns trust. I'll follow a writer anywhere if the dialogue sings.

But strong dialogue requires work. And the more effortless and natural the dialogue, the more work required. Here are four quick tips to ease the burden:

1. Ignore the Reader: I mentioned this in the previous blog post, but it needs to be emphasized again. Dialogue is a conversation between characters. Keep the reader out of it. Weak dialogue explains things to the reader instead of allowing the reader to overhear a conversation. Every word spoken must be for the characters’ benefit, not the reader’s. You want readers to feel like they’re eavesdropping on a private discussion.

2. Keep It Tight: If you can say something in five words, chances are you can say it better in three. Now, that doesn’t literally mean to cut things down to three words, but instead of cutting from five to four, always strive to cut deeper. Edit all unnecessary words and useless phrases. Slice to the bone. Don't edit until every character ends up sounding alike, but you want the dialogue to be crisp and free of wasted effort. Make every word count.

3. Stay One Step Ahead: Avoid writing the obvious. Cut canned responses and courtesy small talk. Think of the first line that comes to mind, write it even, and then cut it. Jumping ahead and starting with the “second” line is a nifty little trick that keeps you one step ahead and effectively pulls the reader through the conversation. You never want your dialogue to be predictable. If readers can guess what your character is going to say, don’t write it.

4. Remember Motivation: Obviously, motivation is essential for any scene construction, but it can be particularly important in dialogue exchanges. Each character must enter the conversation with a specific goal in mind. And when you have two characters with opposing goals, the result is great dialogue.

For instance, think of a detective interviewing a murder suspect. The detective’s motivation is to learn if the suspect is guilty, and the suspect’s motivation is to stay out of prison. There will be a natural conflict of interests there, and it’s pretty easy to see. But what about when the detective is just interviewing a possible witness or someone who knows a suspect? Here’s where a lot of folks slip up. The person being interviewed can’t just roll over and give the detective whatever she needs. The interviewee needs motivation that conflicts with the detective’s goal. Put up obstacles. Make your detective work.



Columbo was the best at interviewing suspects. Study how he would disguise his true motivation behind stories about his wife to manipulate suspects and get them to lower their guards. He was a master, and the reason why those scenes always worked is because Columbo and the people he interacted with always had opposing motivations, even when Columbo was doing his best to act like they didn’t.

And those motivations don’t have to be dramatic. There’s a classic Columbo scene where he needs to interview a driving instructor, played by the great Larry Storch. The instructor’s car actually breaks down, and Columbo offers him a ride home. The instructor’s sole motivation is trying to survive Columbo’s distracted driving. The whole time Columbo is asking questions, the instructor is critiquing his driving and trying not to have an aneurysm. The two opposing motivations clash, and the result is comedy gold.

Ignore the reader, keep it tight, stay one step ahead, and remember motivation. They’re the Four Horsemen of writing dialogue. In the next post, I’ll provide some real-world examples to illustrate all these dialogue basics.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch some Columbo. Lots and lots of Columbo.