Most people consider action in terms of movement. Whether in movies, books, games, or plays, action is thought of as battles, races, chases, sword fights, fist fights, space fights, fights with demons, fights with monsters, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
However, traditionally, dialogue is action. In movies, when the director yelled “Quiet on the set! Action!” it was time for the cast and crew to be silent so that the microphones could pick up the actors speaking their lines. The classical view of action in plays, is actors speaking their lines. That was especially true in ancient Greece and Rome, where in the amphitheaters they rarely, if ever, had props and sets. Dialogue (and possibly a narrator) told the story.
So it is in books. Action is dialogue.
Dialogue performs many functions. It reveals the characters personalities, as well as who they are. It develops the story and moves the plot forward. It creates tension and suspense. And a good joke depends upon dialogue.
How important is dialogue? What would Tom Hanks’ movie castaway be without his character talking to Wilson the soccer ball? If it was just Hanks’ character running around in silence, soon the audience would fall asleep.
When I first started writing years ago, my work was all about description. I described scenes, I described characters, I told their feelings, but my characters said very little to each other. I gradually learned the importance of dialogue. Most important of all, I learned how well a story moved with dialogue.
You can learn a lot from movies about dialogue. One thing you can learn right away is whether the writer or writers are being lazy, not caring about good dialogue at all. The dialogue doesn’t move the story forward, the characters aren’t saying anything interesting but just babbling and in a non-entertaining, non-inciteful way. If the dialogue doesn’t help develop the characters, it’s not helping the story.
Also, if the word Fuck appears repeatedly in a sentence, replacing every verb, adverb, and adjective, that’s just lazy writing. Even people who swear a lot use verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.
The trouble is, writers and directors think they’re being realistic when less than one percent of the world’s population actually swears that much. Besides, and this is important, fiction is FICTION. If you want realism, watch a documentary or read a nonfiction book. You can only put so much reality into fiction before you lose your audience.
Fiction is a metaphor, a parable, a story you tell to reveal a truth or truths without being blatant about it. Let nonfiction be blatant. Fiction is crafty (bad pun, I know). Let fiction lead your readers where you want them to go and learn what they’re willing to learn.
I write about war in my fiction and I can only touch on the realism of war so much before it drives readers away. Real war is brutal, nasty, evil. Even good people in war do bad things, just to survive. War is about destruction, dehumanization, death. It’s nothing any decent person really wants to experience. But it can make for good fiction, if written right.
And good fiction requires at least a good attempt at good dialogue.
Two films that I love, even though they’re filled with cliches ( which originated with them) are Casablanca and The Thing from Another World. The latter film is especially good as an example of dialogue that reveals relationships and characterization while also carrying the story and plot forward.
From time to time, I get out my dvd of it and watch it. One of the things that can help make the film fun is to let out your inner child out and just enjoy the film as if you’ve never seen it before. And another enjoyable fact about the film is Dmitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack. The music is another character in the film which acts like dialogue.
I recommend it.
Finally, for good dialogue, listen to the way people talk. That, too, can help with writing good dialogue. But listen to people everywhere, not just your friends and family–though those groups can be helpful, too.