One of the things that’s tricky about writing realistic dialogue is that there are often several layers going on at once in a conversation. This especially applies to emotionally complex scenes, where a character may have multiple conflicting motivations at once.
So if a dialogue is becoming really troublesome, what we need to do is split those layers apart. This technique brings a lot of insight. It also regularly makes me laugh out loud, even for serious scenes.
Start with the subtext.
Well, no. Start with an example.
Calliste: I wrote something. If you want to see it.
Banks: <continues playing a video game>
Calliste: It doesn’t really matter.
Banks (distracted): No, go for it.
Calliste: <uncertain pause>
Banks: <keeps playing his game>
Calliste: I should get the water boiling. <turns to leave the room>
Banks: <pauses the game and half-stands> Were you going to read it out loud or—?
Calliste: Don’t worry about it.
Banks: <sits back down and resumes game>
Ok, back to the subtext. Strip away all the games and hiding and just write what the characters would say if they were naively shouting exactly what they felt and wanted. For some reason I find this step easier in all caps, but I will spare you the visual assault.
Calliste: I wrote a poem about how deeply I love and appreciate you and I want you to read it and love it and love me.
Banks: I am frightened by the intensity of the emotions that might evoke in me because I love you so deeply and am secretly afraid that I’m not good enough for you and you will figure that out and leave. Also you’re a really good poet and I’m threatened by the fact that you might actually be better at it than me even though I’ve spent years aspiring to be a great poet.
Calliste: This really really matters to me.
Banks: It would be unconscionable to not even acknowledge what you’ve done for me, but I’m still scared for the aforementioned reasons. Beyond all of that I am nevertheless curious to hear what you wrote.
Calliste: I am scared that you will not give this costly and beautiful poem the attention it is worth. I would rather just abandon my efforts than risk the pain of revealing myself and being ignored.
Banks: That was a close one. I am relieved that I may be able to avoid this complicated and potentially painful moment of intimacy without accruing blame for avoiding it.
Calliste: I am increasingly confident this will not end in a way I find satisfactory. I am going to find a reasonable pretext to not do the thing I was initially wanting to do.
Banks: I regret the apathy and emotional flabbiness that is leading me to avoid what could be the deepest and most beautiful moments of our life together. That said, I am apathetic and emotionally flabby and am finding it difficult to muster the bravery to potentially lose control of my emotions if I let myself realize how much you actually love me. But it sucks to so obviously be the bad guy, so I hereby make a gesture that should, I trust, look at least vaguely genuine.
Calliste: The moment is past. Maybe I will try again some other time.
Banks: I hope you do. I think.
Heh, heh. “That was a close one.”
In writing out the unadulterated, unhidden thoughts and feelings of the characters, we find out a lot of what’s going on behind the scenes. And it’s relatively easy as long as you’ve got a good bead on your characters. It’s a lot easier to figure out the psychology behind the scene when you’re just looking at the bare motivations, not trying to understand them, combine them, hide them (as the characters), and reveal them (as the author) all at once.
Often this step is enough for me. But if it’s not, the next step is to lay out why the characters are not being exactly that open about each of the things they’re thinking and feeling.
Calliste: I wrote a poem about how deeply I love and appreciate you and I want you to read it and love it and love me. [But if it turns out you don’t return my feelings as deeply, or even if you’re not as appreciative of the poem as I hope it deserves, it will be humiliating and painful, so I don’t want to oversell it until I have a sense of how likely you are to appreciate it.]
Banks: I am frightened etc. [That is a very complicated set of feelings and I’m not sure how to express it succinctly, and also I’m not sure how you’d respond because I think I’m supposed to be more confident and all. Lacking any better course of action, I’m going to not say any of those things for the moment.]
And so on.
We’ve now sketched out the tensions that are running through the conversation. What remains is to resolve those tensions into specific actions or surface messages.
I posit a third step, though I’ve never actually gone this far in practice. I could sketch out what gimmicks, tools, or devices are available to the characters and how they use them to help play out the actions or surface messages they end up with. Banks has a video game to disappear into. Calliste apparently needs to boil some water.
But what if Banks resorted to picking apart the poem instead of avoiding it? What if Calliste started yelling instead of leaving? There are all sorts of strategies people turn to, and finding the actions and words that express characters’ inner motivations will go a long way to making them rich, deep, and believable.
How do you guys figure out the psychology of your characters and how it should play out in actions? Any tips for me?