Wash: “Little River just gets more colorful by the moment. What'll she do next?”
Zoë: “Either blow us all up or rub soup in our hair. It's a toss-up.”
The above is one of the greatest lines of dialogue in the final episode of Joss Whedon’s ill-fated Firefly. While the show wasn’t long for this world, the impact it has had on the Sci-Fi community is undeniable. Only 14 episodes were ever produced, yet it lives on as a cult classic.
So what was the recipe for it’s now iconic status?
Perhaps it was the setting; a spaghetti Western in space. Maybe the ragtag bunch of underdog heroes. Or it might have been the open-world feeling of humanity stretching to the far corners of the universe.
While those may have helped, I personally believe the center of gravity for the show was, and always will be, The Dialogue.
Characters conversing is one of the hardest things to master in writing. Some authors have a knack for it, but for the majority of us, trying to figure out how to make our creations communicate well is difficult. Yet cracking the code can mean the difference between a decent story and one that readers can’t put down. And while there’s no set formula for what works, there are certainly some elements that help. Here are a handful of tips that I’ve picked up over the years from reading or watching the people who excel at dialogue:
1) Don’t Say What You Mean:
Lord Polonius: “What do you read, my lord”
Hamlet: “Words, words, words.”
Lord Polonius: “What is the matter, my lord?”
Hamlet: “Between who?”
Lord Polonius: “I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”- William Shakespeare, Hamlet.
Good communication may be the key to a happy, healthy relationship, but it’s boring in a story. If two characters have an open dialogue about their feelings at the onset, all the tension and build up is averted. While we may prefer that in real life, the lack of tension slows the pace of a story to a crawl. We need characters to dance around a topic, to want to say something, but fail to do so until a critical moment. Good stories build to a climax. We, as writers, want to pop that dialogue bubble at the right moment and not a minute sooner.
2) No Straight Lines:
“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
One of the things I love about Joss Whedon’s dialogue is that it’s never drawn in a straight line. Zoe could easily have said something like, “Hey, guys. River’s bonkers.” Instead, she comes at it from an angle that you just don’t see coming. It catches us unawares, which keeps the interchange fresh. Rub soup in our hair? Who says that? Well written characters, that’s who. Readers want to know that a character is evil or a mountain is gigantic, but hitting it sideways often times makes more of an impact than simply telling it like it is.
3) Let it Flow:
“We all know him to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Good dialogue flows naturally. There’s a beat to it, a rhythm that clips along at a realistic pace. Readers who fall in step with the timpani of the conversation can quickly find themselves lost in a great story. But mess that up and you’ll pull a reader out of your world immediately. Stilted, forced dialogue is like speed bumps on a smooth highway. Granted, there are boundaries based on genre or setting, but even if your story takes place in Victorian England, the dialogue needs to feel natural and real.
4) Make it Beautiful:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” – Frank Herbert, Dune.
This is one of my favorite quotes from Dune. It’s short and simple, yet flowering with beauty. Excellent prose in general is wonderful, but dialogue that is more than just a string of words is addictive. There are parts of Dune that I re-read from time to time just to soak in the beauty. Finding dialogue that resonates with an almost musical quality is like unearthing a treasure chest of gems.
5) Make it Smart:
Bond: “I have a dinner jacket.”
Vesper: “There are dinner jackets and dinner jackets. This is the latter.” – Casino Royale
While dialogue can be beautiful at times, it should also be smart. Snappy exchanges between characters pop with energy and that keeps readers enthralled. Drag an exchange on too long or let the conversation dwindle and folks will put a book down. But keep the energy flowing and people will want to read just one more chapter before turning out the light.
In the end, there’s no formula for getting dialogue right, but there are many writers who have mastered it. Studying those authors can help you find the perfect tone, pace, and energy for your own story so that your dialogue excels. And while the above quotes are just some of the ones I’ve discovered, they barely scratch the surface of fantastic craftsmanship of dialogue.
So what are some of your favorite examples of truly exquisite dialogue?
Joshua Roots is a car enthusiest, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.
Paranormal Chaos, the final book in The Shifter Chronicles, is available wherever digital books are sold.