Reviewing the screenplay for The Wall, a story about a sniper pinned behind a wall by an enemy sniper who clearly knows him, Christopher Pendergraft at Script Shadow makes a fantastic observation on dialogue that every writer needs to read.
As background, the main character in The Wall is named Locke and is in radio communication with the enemy sniper, simply called “Ghost.”
What I learned: The inner monologue versus the outer dialogue. A conversation is never a straightforward thing where the world stops while words are exchanged. Characters are usually thinking about something else when they speak, and what they’re thinking about can help inform the scene. You may be talking to your boss, for example, but thinking about your date with his daughter later. You might be at a party talking to someone you don’t like, and therefore scanning the room, looking for someone to save you. You may be talking to a teacher in a parent-teacher conference, who’s telling you that your kid isn’t paying attention in class, and all you’re thinking about is, “That’s because you’re the worst teacher in America.” In The Wall, Locke spends almost the entire conversation with Ghost looking for a way out. He’s never just having a conversation. He’s strategizing, manipulating, hunting for a clue as to Ghost’s whereabouts. That’s a huge reason why the dialogue pops here. Because the inner monologue is contrasted against it.
[You can check out the rest of the review here.]
This is important to remember, not only because it’s a realistic representation of how conversations take place in the real world, but because it maximizes the effect of a scene. You can advance the plot, gain insight into the characters’ motivations and personality, develop the setting, etc.
For example, this snippet of dialogue from All the Seas and Rivers, in which a stereotypical lone gunfighter rides into the desert town of Banter and shoots down an entire gang of suspected outlaws. The sheriff, who confronts him in the street immediately after the gunfight, is trying to (a) get the full story, (b) ease the gunfighter into surrendering himself, (c) keep himself from being the next dead man in the street, and (d) avoid alienating the townsfolk/voters who are listening in from doors and windows. And, of course, the gunfighter has his own range of hidden motivations.
“They started,” the gunfighter said, “making fun of my clothes.”
“Your clothes?” The sheriff then noticed that the man’s shirt and trousers, unremarkable in their style and color, were yet conspicuously clean of dust. “Well, you hardly look like you just arrived from the High Plains.”
“I changed out in the livery back at the edge of town.”
The sheriff bobbed his head back. “Did you?”
“Trail wear ain’t town wear.”
“Banter is not much more than a trail town.” Reminding himself of his constituents listening in, the sheriff chewed the side of his mouth and let his gaze ratchet from one corpse to the next. Finally, he nodded at Goose Chaffing, dirt-faced against the steps with his boots in the air pointing at the saloon door.
“That one’s a sheriff’s deputy,” he said. “Or was.”
The gunman casually cocked his head to align it with Goose’s stairward form, as if he might better detect officiality by putting it less diagonal in his vision.
Anyway, if you’re a writer, it’s good to remember to layer your dialogue with conflicting motivations, and remember that every character is carrying on an inner dialogue, at all times.