Thursday, April 2, 2015

Boring Dialogue and How to Fix It

As an editor, I run across boring dialogue all the time. I consistently advise my authors to study "micro tension" and often to look into some of Donald Maass's books where he discusses it.

Good dialogue has good tension. Sometimes all that is needed to build tension is to give your audience an expectation of a negative outcome (they know something the characters don't or are pretending they don't), and then delaying that outcome while often teasing its arrival. Watch a few Tarantino films--the man knows his dialogue. Check out this scene for instance.

Warning: This scene is a bit graphic and the language gets offensive, NSFW. It's a Tarantino film, and that's just how he rolls.

Everyone knows that Candy knows Dr. King Schultz is playing him. When Candy returns to the room, the audience expects Schultz to be confronted. That doesn't happen, not immediately. Instead Candy engages the men he knows are trying to cheat him, appearing affable, all while telling a story that grows increasingly more threatening. The audience very quickly realizes that Schultz knows that Candy knows, and so throughout the entire nine minute scene we're expecting violence and a full confrontation. At multiple points it looks like the situation is going to explode into real violence, but it's not until about eight and a half minutes in when we're made to, for just a moment, think Django's wife is certainly going to be killed, and yet even in this expectation we're denied. The dialogue and interactions set up expectation, deny it, set it up, deny it again--this is tension.

An alternative scene that does nearly the same thing, but isn't quite so NSFW: 


Inglourious Basterds Analysis — The Elements of Suspense

But you don't always have a gun pointed at a character's back, and you don't always have imminent doom you can use for a scene you are writing. When that happens, micro tension is king, but even then it works on the same general principle of setting up expectations and then delaying them. Every scene should have a purpose, and every character in a scene should have a goal--what the character wants in the long run, and what the character wants RIGHT NOW. Tension in dialogue is created when the wants/needs of one character are at odds with the wants and needs of the other character. It can be as minor as a man really needing his morning cup of coffee, and a barista who really just wants the morning rush to clear out, so she can check Facebook on her iPhone. As both of these characters stand in the way of the other's needs, and the author delays fulfilling those needs, you create tension.

Micro tension at its finest! 

Check out these links for more information on micro tension:

Pick a passage of dialogue. Strip it down. Increase hostility between the speakers. It can be friendly ribbing, worried questioning, polite disagreement, snide derision, veiled threats, open hostility, or any other degree of friction.

You can add micro-tension in dialogue in two ways.

1. Escalate the language. This doesn't mean tossing in a bunch of F-bombs or otherwise. That's just trying to be edgy and failing. But don't let characters use wussy words or vague phrasing. Make their statements direct and strong. Use harsher, more meaningful words.

2. Have the dialogue create friction. Besides the composure of the dialogue, consider the content as well. Are people kitten footing around the issue when they talk to each other? Get them to call each other out. Perhaps one character uses a word the other might consider blasphemous or insulting. Don't let them become so diplomatic (unless it's that vitriolic diplomacy where tension is simmering below every nicety).

Maass says earlier in the chapter: Micro-tension is easily understood but hard to do. I know this because when teaching it in workshops I watch participants nod in understanding when I explain it, but see them stare helplessly at their pages when they try to do it themselves.

Dialogue becomes compelling when the two speakers are emotionally at odds with each other: perhaps one is dubious of the other's argument. The reader reads on, wanting to know -- needing to know -- if, at the end of the conversation, the speakers will be reconciled.

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