The Beauty of Dialogue

What is the purpose of dialogue?  The importance of dialogue varies and depends on the format for which the conversation is written.  We all recognize that a book’s descriptions of peoples and places is unique because each reader visualizes what is written on the page differently.  A film or a television show, however, gives you the visuals but they cannot show you what is inside a character’s mind.  Where a book can give you insights into a character’s motives and help the reader understand their point of view, a movie script can only do this through dialogue.  Therefore, dialogue in a film is more crucial than in a book, right?  Not necessarily.  All components of writing (especially good writing) work together and dialogue is no less important in a book than visuals are in a film.

I was inspired to write this post after watching Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones on HBO.  [Having said that, there are spoilers ahead for those not up to date with the show].  This week’s episode was an explosive one when it came to dialogue.  Scene after scene I was gravitated toward the intense and emotional conversations between characters, some of whom I don’t even like!  Having read the books, I was a bit skeptical of what this show would accomplish in terms of both visually translating some pretty epic high fantasy landscapes and in conveying each character’s mindset.  For those familiar with the books, you will know that each chapter is a point of view of a specific character.  This allows George Martin to tell us what his characters are thinking and it makes us sympathize with (most of) them.  I was worried the show could not do that but Sunday’s episode proved me wrong.  The conversation between Tywin and Tommen about what it takes to be a good king blew my mind.  Although I hate Tywin, everything he said had merit and the person to whom he was speaking, Tommen Baratheon/Lannister is already a good king because he is nothing like the rest of his family……whose patriarch is giving him the speech on being a good king!  More importantly the conversation took place in front of Cersei who is still mourning the death of her son; her evil little demon of a son, but her son nonetheless.  Tyrion’s plead to Pod to leave the capital in order to protect him brought tears to my eyes.  At this point in the show and in the book, viewers and readers alike appreciate Tyrion’s honesty, though they are undoubtedly realizing that his honesty put him in a jail cell.  Here we see true emotions, not for Tysha (the woman he once “married”) or Shae (the woman he now loves), but for his squire, who has remained loyal to him throughout unmeasurable difficulties and trials.  Then there was perhaps one of my favorite pieces of dialogue in the whole series, between the Hound and Arya Stark.  No doubt Arya has already learned the harsh realities of life, but as the Hound’s traveling companion she was destined to see more.  After he informs her that the farmer and his daughter would not survive the winter and that life is full of disappointment he asks her, “How many more Starks have to lose their head before you understand?”  That line gave me chills and his brutal honesty forced me to realize that Arya is in the best hands, although he was at one point on her list of men she wanted dead. 

My point in this post is not to rave (once again) about the wonderful TV show on HBO (though it is great and you should watch it if you aren’t already committed to it), but to prove that dialogue is key to a powerful story.  True, an author can write sidebars and entire paragraphs devoted to the thoughts of one particular character, but a person’s language and actions speak much more loudly than their thoughts on a page.  A character’s mood can make us either believe everything they say or second-guess at all their motives in what they do.  One line can make us their ally or their enemy.  When you write your dialogue, what is your purpose?  What do you want to convey in each sentence you write?  I have learned that a character should never say something that you would not say in their place.  Good dialogue advances a story but poorly written conversations are simply filler.  My personal challenge for myself this week is to write a conversation my readers can believe and one that makes me appreciate who is saying the words I write.

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