Illustration by Alex Jenkins
A phenomenon occurred. Though I should be hardly surprised about it. Reading books on writing saturated my mind to the point where I can no longer read a book and not analyze its structure. And the worst (or best?) part is, when reading dialogue, I suddenly see the emotional subtext underneath it and whether or not it's done right. By "right" I don't mean it adheres to some unbreakable rules, as there is no right way to write. By "right" I mean the reaction it arouses in me as a reader. Does it move me or does it leave me cold? Does it give me an insight or does it bore me? Does it make me root for the characters, or does it make me set the book aside because I don't care for the characters one bit?
The answer to all these questions is surprisingly simple.
The dialogue is done right when its emotional beats alternate between positive and negative with a rising intensity that ultimately leads to a climax.
The three books that have pointed me to this are The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, Story by Robert McKee, and Dialogue by Robert McKee. I'll illustrate.
Since dialogue implies two characters, there are six steps you need to take, three for each character, FOR EVERY BEAT OF DIALOGUE. A beat is one exchange that emotionally pivots around the beat's turning point, an action/reaction. I say this, you say this. That's one beat. As soon as the emotional charge turns, a new beat begins, and so on. Don't worry, I will explain below. (And if there are more than two people talking, you can still break it down to one-on-one exchanges.)
For the first character take this three-step approach:
Write out the inner monologue that spells out the subtext of what the character needs to say. DO NOT WRITE IT INTO THE DIALOGUE. This is a mistake I made, the typical beginner mistake: to have my characters say what they think. It leaves no room for the reader to participate, to read what's underneath the words, and the reader gets bored. But if you write this out, it will give you the springboard to write what your character will actually say. Yes, this is slow. It's much easier to just type (that's what I used to do). But trust me, it's worth the time and the effort.
Write out the action your character will perform by speaking. Now that you know what the subtext is, you must know what your character is feeling and what they want to accomplish by saying something. Robert McKee suggest to use one simple gerund. For example, pleading, or ignoring, or lying, or apologizing, or confessing. Whatever it is. Once you get this down, get to the actual writing.
Write out the text of the dialogue line. It would typically be just one line, maybe several, if your character is making a small speech, but most of the time it will be one or a couple. This is the actual text of the dialogue that is doing three things: hiding the subtext by expressing an emotion to accomplish an action. No small task. If you add to this all the backstory of your character, their personality, speech inflections, specific vocabulary, local dialect, etc., you can see how this can easily eat up hours. Just writing one line. But don't despair. You'll speed up with practice (this is why it's taking me so long to write TUBE).
For the second character take a similar three-step approach, but with one big difference: