Draft dialogue can often end up rather cerebral. I want to suggest that in rendering fictional drama think of dialogue as not discussion of philosophies, but briefer exchanges that are driven by a situation where something dramatic is at stake in the lives of the characters – especially between the characters speaking. Those bigger questions are better as themes embedded secretly in the plot than as conversational exchanges.

Consider this advice from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft:

“A crucial (and sometimes difficult) distinction to make is between speech that is mere discussion or debate and speech that is drama or action. …Dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change…characters may argue with splendid eloquence but …we are likely to find them wooden and uninteresting. Dramatic dialogue has stakes between the characters…” (91)

Example 1: Philosophical: (let’s call it, not “no stakes” – but “low stakes” conversation).

“Look Mark, I just don’t accept your world view where a mysterious and unknowable God-figure pulls the strings behind the scenes making everything happen.”

“Jane, your existentialism inevitably leads to a state of despair. Without a belief in something beyond ourselves we’re doomed to consider ourselves purposeless. It’s a lonely, meaningless existence.”

“Yes, Mark, but I am willing to accept that possibility, for I am a realist, and that’s the price you pay for realism – I may be lonely, but I have true free will. My choices are not burdened by superstition.”

Note how the characters sound the same – there’s little room for creating distinctive voices when everyone uses the vocabulary of ideas.

Example: Higher Stakes Dialogue

Now let’s consider a dramatically rendered conversation with high stakes between the characters. In other words, the human outcome matters right now as well as later, concretely and not abstractly. We’ll even start with the exact same line, but then veer away quickly from philosophy in favor of dramatic interaction.

“Look Mark, I just don’t accept your world view where a mysterious and unknowable God-figure pulls the strings behind the scenes making everything happen.”

“Jane, please. This isn’t easy for me. You’re always so sure about everything. I’m not… assertive. But I feel my being with you this way is false. It’s not me. I-I want to be married in the church. I won’t try to change your beliefs, Jane, but if you don’t become Catholic, then my priest can’t marry us. And if my priest can’t marry us, then, I…I can’t marry you.”

“So don’t. So what? I never wanted to anyway. I’m happy the way things are.

“But I’m not. I tried, but…it doesn’t work for me.”

Jane remembered her life before Mark. A blurry chain of dateless months punctuated by a few hopeful but ultimately fruitless encounters. A man’s body pressing against hers in hopeful pleasure, but then the look on his face, the certainty that it meant nothing beyond the moment. The mounting feeling she’d never find someone with whom to share her life. Sitting alone in movies in the flickering darkness, eating alone at restaurants, surrounded by couples. She never, ever wanted to be that lonely again.

“We can’t compromise? What about a Unitarian minister?”

“I know I seem unreasonable to you, but this is my faith.”

She stared a long time, not considering anything, just lost in the blankness. Finally she whispered, “I can’t marry you in the Catholic church.”

I hope after reading this tip you’ll revise dialogue to give your characters more of a chance to live in the three dimensional world of relationships than merely in the flat world of ideas.