Consider Nancy and Kevin. This brother and sister mostly got along, though it’s years since they’ve been close: marriage, kids, careers—they drifted. But neither Kevin nor Nancy predicted that dad’s death would endanger their relationship.
Unless you’re related to Nancy and Kevin, why would you care? Because the demise of Kevin and Nancy illustrates how dialogue works. Or doesn’t.
Kevin’s fury might launch a scene. After all, he maintained Dad’s hardware store, plus keeping his lawn mowed, snow blowed, and roof repaired. Nor was Kevin’s schedule exactly overflowing with spare time for someone else’s life.
“Your life? What about mine?” Nancy wants to know when she adds her lines to the script. Hardly her fault that Kevin took years getting Dad’s house in shape to sell. Especially since her husband graciously took Dad into their home. Of course Dad didn’t intentionally torment every member of Nancy’s family (even Rover). But his dementia irritated, exhausted, and freaked them all. Every day. For years.
Who’s right? Nancy. And Kevin. Life has enough actual bad guys. Fiction shouldn’t. Readers must believe both stories. That promotes dilemma—the most genuine source of tension. Make dilemma drive the script characters play out when they interact.
Tip: Good dialogue comes from a forceful, credible, well- justified script for each character.
You get there not by replicating reality, but simulating it.
In the real world, Kevin and Nancy might shriek, accuse, and bellow. Or bicker twenty-nine separate times over a four-month period. That won’t propel fiction. Their conversations need to be short, snappy, and subtle. And two or three times beats twenty-nine.
Kevin might actually scream, “If you can’t understand what this cost me, I never want to speak to you again!” Makes sense. A bit tepid, though. Why read on, when we can predict what’s next. Besides, wouldn’t it be more fun (not to mention more accurate) to wonder if Kevin’s rage disguises hurt? There’s greater ambivalence in “I can’t believe you’d say that,” or “I don’t even recognize you.” Cliché, yes, but reflective of complex emotion. That’s how they became cliché.
In real life, courts determine guilt or innocence. In fiction, everyone’s both. If you despise Nancy or Kevin so piercingly that you can’t design two defensible versions of the so-called facts, you have no business telling their story.
Want virtuoso characterization and dialogue? Handle animosity not as if it were a heat-seeking missile, but a feeling we all experience at least occasionally. Emotion is intricately complex: rage mixed with pain, greed laced with regret, righteousness tempered by anxiety about never speaking to your sibling again. Make sure all your characters can justify themselves. Because each person both believes his or her story—and doesn’t. Unless dialogue reflects that, it won’t infuse the depth, intricacy, and credibility your story deserves. Because your readers do.