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How to Write Good Dialogue: Courtesy of Mass Effect

Here’s a question for you. You’re reading a book and the pace starts to drag, but you’re still curious to know what happens next. What do you do? The answer for me is obvious: you skip to the next section of dialogue. Good dialogue takes the story forward and shows character. Good dialogue crackles on the page. A confrontational exchange can be like two boxers slugging it out, trading punch and counter-punch. But what makes “good” dialogue, and more importantly how do you write it?

Commander ShepardsI’m going to try to answer those questions by looking at a series of computer games called Mass Effect. Many of you will be familiar with them already, but for those of you who aren’t, bear with me. For the purposes of this article, all you need to know about the games is that they have lots of dialogue, and that you get to choose (to a degree) what your character says, and therefore what sort of character he or she is.

When your character, Shepard, speaks in Mass Effect, a “conversation wheel” appears on the screen.

Conversation Wheel

At the top of the wheel you have the Paragon or “good guy” option (blue), whilst at the bottom is the Renegade or “bad guy” option (red). For reasons of space, you don’t get to see on the screen exactly what Shepard will say for each option. Instead you get an abridged version that gives you a flavour of what your character will come out with. The magic of the game’s writers is in turning that short, bland version into something more colourful. Here are a couple of examples:

1. You’ve just saved someone from a corrupt administrator, Anoleis, and are trying to get proper compensation for your efforts. You’re offered 500 credits.

Anoleis

The Renegade option on the conversation wheel says:

“Anoleis would pay more.”

When you select that option, though, Shepard comes out with:

“Listen, I just saved you from a nasty prison shower scene. Exercise that corporate credit account.”

2. You’ve been accosted by a no-hoper, Conrad, who asks if he can become an elite soldier like you.

Conrad

The Renegade option on the conversation wheel says:

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

When you select that option, though, Shepard unloads with:

“Conrad, I haven’t been shot in the head nearly enough times to make that seem like a good idea.”

Maybe you don’t like this Renegade Shepard. Maybe you don’t like the humour. But surely no-one could question that, in each example, the second line of dialogue is better than the first. No-one could question that it shows more character, and is more colourful.

Let’s see how it works in a longer section of dialogue. The context is, Shepard is recruiting people to accompany him on a dangerous mission and has tracked down an assassin called Thane.

Thane and Mouse

First, let’s see how the conversation goes with just the Renegade option as taken from the conversation wheel. I’ve cut some bits to keep the length manageable. At the opening, Shepard finds Thane praying over a woman he’s just killed, Nassana.

Shepard: You ignoring me?

Thane: Prayers for the wicked must never be forsaken.

Shepard: Don’t bother.

Thane: Not for her, for me.

[…]

Shepard: We’re going after [the Collectors].

Thane: Attacking the Collectors would require passing through the Omega 4 relay. No ship has ever returned from doing so.

Shepard: So I’ve heard.

Thane: A suicide mission. Yes. A suicide mission will do nicely. I’m dying. Low survival odds don’t concern me. The abduction of your colonists does.

Shepard: You’re worried about humans?

Thane: They are innocent, yes? Like all victims of the Collectors …

The conversation just about “works”. There’s enough conflict to keep you interested, but the dialogue is flat. Let’s see what happens when the options from the conversation wheel are replaced with what Shepard actually says.

Shepard: I just tore this place apart looking for you. The least you can do is look at me.

Thane: Prayers for the wicked must never be forsaken.

Shepard: Nassana and her men deserved what they got.

Thane: Not for her, for me.

[…]

Shepard: We’re going after [the Collectors].

Thane: Attacking the Collectors would require passing through the Omega 4 relay. No ship has ever returned from doing so.

Shepard: They tell me it’s a suicide mission. I intend to prove them wrong.

Thane: A suicide mission. Yes. A suicide mission will do nicely. I’m dying. Low survival odds don’t concern me. The abduction of your colonists does.

Shepard: Not to look a gift assassin in the mouth, but why are human colonists a concern to you?

Thane: They are innocent, yes? Like all victims of the Collectors …

Better? There are some nice turns of phrase in there, and you get a good sense of the Renegade character. And whilst both sections of dialogue get you where you need to go, the journey in the second example is much more enjoyable. For me, the first section has the feel of a first draft. When I write dialogue, the first draft is about getting the structure of the exchange right. I know what the characters need to talk about, but arranging everything into a sequence that flows can be tricky. Only once that’s done do I start adding some trimmings. But how? How do you turn bland first-draft dialogue into something more interesting?

Paragon or Renegade - Keep Calm or Don'tThe first question to ask is, “Is there conflict in the conversation?” Going back to Mass Effect, you’ll recall I mentioned that you get a choice on the conversation wheel between a Paragon and a Renegade option. If you compare the same section of dialogue from each perspective, you’ll find the Renegade option is generally more entertaining. This is because the Renegade character is more confrontational than the Paragon one. Confrontation means conflict, and conflict means drama. If I’m writing a scene, and my characters are busy agreeing with each other, then I’ve usually got a problem.

The next question is, “Is the dialogue direct or indirect?” Direct dialogue expresses exactly what the character is thinking, with no attempt to lie, misdirect, or be witty. Sometimes people don’t say precisely what they mean for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes what is not said is more interesting than what is.

Here’s an example of indirect dialogue from a short story of mine called “There’s a Devil Watching Over You”.

[Warning: spoilers follow for anyone thinking of reading the story at Tor.com – which I heartily recommend.]

By way of background, Safiya, a bandit, has tried to rob a warrior Guardian, Luker. Luker shot her in the leg with an arrow, but the two of them are forced into an uneasy alliance when they encounter a shared enemy. The passage includes a “translation” in square brackets to show what the equivalent direct dialogue might have looked like.

“But you can kill it, right?” Safiya said.

“Maybe. If I had help.”

Safiya scowled. [Direct: There IS no help.] “Great. You go and find some of your Guardian friends, I’ll keep it entertained with my rendition of ‘The Whore and the Hare’.”

The man looked at her.

A troubling thought came to Safiya. “Hang on, you don’t mean help from me, do you?” He did, she realised. Her scowl stretched. [Direct: I’m injured, what help can I be?] “Oh sure, absolutely! What do you want me to do, bleed my leg at it?” The Guardian’s expression didn’t change. Perhaps he only had the one. “If you wanted help, maybe you shouldn’t have shot me.”

[Direct: Stop complaining.] “You’re lucky I only aimed for your leg.”

[Direct: How is being shot in the leg ‘lucky’?] “Yeah, remind me to repay the favour some time.” Then the import of his words sank in. “Wait, you were aiming for my leg? Why?”

“I needed to slow you down. And I’ve found that an arrow in the neck tends to stop rather than slow.”

ChatterThe final question to ask yourself is, “Can the dialogue you’ve written be made more clever or colourful?” There’s no shortcut for this. It’s about brainstorming until you get a line you’re happy with, even if it takes an hour or a day or a week. But make sure that whatever dialogue you settle on is in character for the person doing the talking, and for the circumstances they find themselves in.

And if you still need inspiration, you could always trying playing the Mass Effect games. That’s what I’m off to do now, as it happens.

All in the name of research, you understand.

– – –

If you enjoyed this article and want to see how the above ideas are being put into action, Marc’s novel When the Heavens Fall is out now. Here’s the back cover blurb:

When the Heavens Fall (books)The first of an epic swords and sorcery fantasy series for fans of Patrick Rothfuss. When the Heavens Fall features gritty characters, deadly magic, and meddlesome gods.

If you pick a fight with Shroud, the Lord of the Dead, you had better make sure you end up on the winning side, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering.

A book that gives its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artifact at all cost.

However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian who is commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud. The greatest threat to each of their quests lies not in the horror of an undead army but in the risk of betrayal from those closest to them. Each of their decisions comes at a personal cost and will not only affect them, but also determine the fate of their entire empire.

You can pick up When the Heavens Fall from your favourite local book store or Amazon US / Amazon UK / Audible.

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3 Comments

  1. Joshua Dorne says:

    Ah, my favorite game series of all time. Great spot on the dialogue. It’s so easy to write directly without realizing how flat it feels. Bioware are masters at great conversations. I need to remember to remind myself to find the conversational conflict in my own stories. Thanks for the tips that speak directly to my nerd sensibilities!

  2. Benjamin says:

    Very useful, thank you. Much more succinct than other articles on the matter.

  3. Great points – I’m in the middle of a ME2 re-playthrough and agree that the series is a great example of strong dialogue.

    You also gave me a new trick in my editing bag. The section where you listed out the conversation using the shorter player-selected pieces of dialogue vs. Shepard’s actual dialogue is very telling. Now I’ve started asking myself which version I’m using when re-reading something I’ve written. It’s a good reminder.

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