As master conspirators (ahem, writers) with goals and desired outcomes for our scenes, it's easy to, well, write them that way. To direct them, like George Lucas in Episode 1, cliché-laden and headed towards an obvious outcome. You're familiar with the kind of dialogue I mean, where you know where it's going, and you're just bumping along the kiddie roller coaster 'til you get to the flashing lights at the end.
P: "Hey Dolly. Want to grab some coffee with me?"
D: "Sure, Pete. I'd love to. Where should we go?"
P: "How about Potbelly's?"
D: "Hmm, I don't know. There's one barista there who's really rude to me."
P: "Really? Well, goodness. Do you have a place you like?"
D: "Sure. I usually hit up Three Friends. Would you like to go there?"
P: "Okay, sounds good."
D: "Great. See you then."
UNF. I think you see the problem here.
Some time back, I had the opportunity to grab a coffee with Miriam Forster, author of City of a Thousand Dolls, and I chatted with her about why revising is just so freaking hard. The kind of hard that makes me wish I were a turtle so I could curl up in my shell and never have to do anything ever again. One of the things we both mentioned struggling with in revision—one of the reasons it's so difficult—is fixing up our dialogue.
Because let's be honest: punchy dialogue can make a book sing, while clunky, unnatural dialogue can wreck it. Conversations start to feel steered, robotic, like some ethereal conductor is directing the speakers toward an inevitable conclusion.
"Well," I asked her, "what do you do about it?"
And Miriam, in all her infinite patience, explained to me that she looks at dialogue on the page as two distinct, separate characters, with distinct, separate goals and motivations and personalities, having a conversation. (And I said, "Obviously.") But then she added:
"Think about it," she said. "Everything we say, even right here, right now? We're each of us talking to ourselves. We're talking to hear our own voices. I'm not even directly responding to your question right now. I'm going around it, telling a story to explain it. Think of it like two separate but overlapping conversations happening at the same time."
(I'm sorry. I had to. It's so relevant.)
She explained that dialogue doesn't have to feel like tennis, with each player returning the volley predictably, you and then me and then you and then me again.
Sometimes we dodge questions. Sometimes we answer questions with more questions. Sometimes we don't even ask the questions we're thinking. Sometimes we try to route our conversation partner completely, on to a different topic (and sometimes they catch us).
And let's not beat around the bush: we all like to hear ourselves talk. We're always thinking of the next thing we're going to say, even while other people in the room are talking (and we're supposed to be listening). It's human nature. We always want to be right. We always want to be the center of attention. We want everyone to listen to us, all the time, and not the other way around.
So, instead of a neat and tidy little back-and-forth, you get something more like this:
P: "Hey, Dolly. Want to grab some coffee with me?"
D: "Coffee's kind of hard on my stomach. Maybe tea?"
P: "I heard that doesn't happen if you drink it with butter."
D: "What? Butter?"
P: "Helps with digestion, or something. Where would you suggest for tea?"
D: "I used to go to this place, Potbelly's, but the barista there's really rude. Have you been to Townshend's?"
P: "Heard good things. Certainly not that they're rude there. How about Townshend's at 5?"
D: "Townshend's at 5."
Of course, the stakes are pretty low here—just trying to decide what to drink and where to go for it. But take a step back. We get a little more out of both characters, because they each have distinct and separate values, interests, and even tolerance levels. Pete seems like the kind of guy who isn't perturbed by bad service, but Dolly is. Pete's also a fact-dropper, who maybe wants to impress Dolly with this random bit of knowledge. They don't respond to each other's questions, not necessarily, but answer them in round-about ways.
The outcome is the same, but the journey there is a little more interesting, and certainly more informative of our puppet-like participants.
Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.