Web comic "Surfer Joe"

Writing Dialogue (#065)

Writing Dialogue

What makes good dialogue?

These last few pages have been a good exercise in doing dialogue scenes with multiple characters. Though it has left me pondering the above question quite often. It could be me just second guessing myself. Surfer Joe is largely written off the cuff from a fairly broad outline. Also, my past work Mr.Lineman isn’t known for its riveting character conversation(though I took every opportunity to practice writing dialogue, alas the actors mumbled throughout the recording. Rank amateurs if you ask me.) 

My knowledge of dialogue writing is mostly theory from various screenwriting books I’ve read over the years. But I have learned a few things, so I’ve decided to make a list of things I like to keep in mind while writing. 

The following might contain spoilers, though nothing important:

What is the objective of the scene?

This is pretty straightforward, but it’s the foundation for which you will build your interactions from. A scene must move the story forward, and grant new insights into your characters to keep the audience engaged. Something has to come out of it, either good or bad for the hero of your story. In the case of this scene, the objective if for Joe to attain a new surfboard(notice I didn’t say “buy”. I like to keep my options open.) Not just any surfboard, but one that will help him learn to surf better. The secondary objective is to educate the readers on the various aspects of surfboard designs. Surfer Joe is meant to be educational, after all.

Who are the players, and what do they want?

Every scene is driven by characters trying to get what they want against opposition. The crudest example I can think of is the superhero movie trope with a maniacal villain bent on world domination vs. the hero who stands in his way on the moral high ground. The power over others vs. freedom for all. Let’s break down the current scene from SJ based on what we know so far:

  1. Joe is player 1. He wants a new surfboard because he broke his old one in chapter 1. He’s overly trusting of others and knows next to nothing about surfboards. But he is the customer and has final say about what board he will walk out with.
  2. Hiro is player 2. He has reluctantly decided to teach Joe how to surf. He’s a knowledgeable surfer, but a bit of a push-over. A clear beta-male in the surfing hierarchy, he wants the respect of his peers. He also wants Joe to get a board that he can learn on with ease, but he has no real skin in the game and can be easily manipulated.
  3. Sonny is player 3. He is a surf shop owner and thus has a great deal of influence in the local surfing scene. He sees many people come through his shop looking to learn to surf but knows most don’t stick with it. He’s not a bad guy, but he is behind on his rent so he’s looking for a score. He sees Joe as a sucker, and Hiro can be easily dealt with.
  4. Kirra is player 4. She is the daughter of Sonny and helps out around the shop. What she wants has yet to be revealed.

The mix of the characters all pushing and manipulating to get their desires propel the scene towards its conclusion. The tension and conflict from their interactions create drama.

Who is driving the scene?(The Mental Mcguffin)

This is something I learned from Mr. Lineman. There is always a character in control of the direction the scene is heading. This player is the “driver”. The other players are trying to wrestle control of the scene from them. The scene can change drivers at some point (In fact it’s preferable). As long as it doesn’t switch back and forth too much. 

A good example of this is Raiders of the Lost Ark, where whoever possesses the Ark is the scene driver(whether it is Indy or the Nazis) until it is wrestled away by the other side. The Ark is the baton symbolizing the driver of the plot. Commonly known as a “Mcguffin”. All scenes should have a Mental Mcguffin function, even if it isn’t a physical object. 

How much exposition is necessary?

Exposition is information and backstory that is needed to fuel drama. Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, in particular, rely on exposition to help create the worlds that the stories are held in. It is important but unfortunately boring for all but the most patient members of the audience. 

There is a tendency with storytellers to rely too heavily on exposition. The fear that the audience won’t be able to follow the story often drives writers to over explain everything. All this explaining grinds the story flow to a crawl, and lets the air out of the “drama balloon”

Think of exposition as fuel for conflict. Conflict in turn fuels drama. If you burn all your fuel up, you will be out of gas with nowhere to go. But if you let the fuel burn at a steady rate, you can keep moving. Every piece of story information has the potential to be a scene turning revelation, a hammer that drops on the audience and keeps them on the edge of their seats. So make sure you save your exposition for the appropriate time.

In short, use as little exposition as you can get away with. Oh, and work it into the scene conflict and the audience won’t even notice. Easier said than done, though…


I feel like one of the most important aspects of good dialogue is not what the characters say, but what they don’t say. Characters will manipulate the scene in order to achieve their desired outcome, but few people are so forward to say what they want outright. If they do, they may not want to divulge their reasons. People are complicated beings incapable of complete honesty. They hide the truth or choose to remain silent for all kinds of reasons. Whether they are nefarious or trying to protect a loved one or just plum forgot, people won’t say exactly what’s on their mind unless there is no other option. 

Subtext is where exposition hides, waiting to pop out and surprise the audience. It is your character’s desires and motivation, hidden animosity or crush. Subtext is the elephant in the room. It’s what makes your characters more than just archetypes, and fleshes them out into real people with hopes and desires. It is what creates empathy in the audience.

Well… that’s my list.

I don’t really believe in rules, but these are some of the things I consider when writing dialogue. If you find it useful let me know in the comments.

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