There is not a single person who does something without wanting something in return. No person gives information freely, no lover gives a kiss without expectations.
This idea explains hope- fostering a desire and being brave enough to wish that what you're giving will someday earn you that desire- just as much as it explains selfishness.
What your character says reflects the thing they want most, and how they say it has a direct correlation with whether they get it. Because of this, you can't have powerful dialogue without a deep understanding of your character's driving motivations.
Understand Your Character's Motivation To Enhance Your Dialogue
There are a lot of great resources for developing character motivation and developing dialogue. My favorite tool for developing motivation, and what I find to work quickest, is Character Interrogation. Find their motivation then ask them "Why?"
Right now, draw a pyramid. At the very tippy top, you have the overarching motivation. This is what the reader recognizes at first glance.
Frodo needs to deliver the Ring
This is a motivation, but not strong enough on its own to withstand the fierce challenges that stand in Frodo's way. On the next rung down on your pyramid we go a step deeper and ask "Why?"
Frodo needs to deliver the Ring because he wants to have adventures and to be like his hero Bilbo.
Better. Asking once isn't enough, though. Often the reason we feel compelled to do something reveals the core of who we are, and the same is true for our characters. You must ask your character why and why and why again until you reach their core. That core is the bottom most rung of your pyramid.
Frodo needs to deliver the Ring because he is fiercely loyal and what he loves is being threatened. Maybe it's because "Things are made to endure in the Shire" and Frodo felt an innate responsibility to help those things endure.
Once you hit the core, then, naturally you will feel every action they take pull towards their motivation. It's one of the top magical writing experiences.
Use your new understanding of the character's motivation while crafting the dialogue.
By looking at dialogue through the lenses of your character's motivation it makes each line useful and powerful. If you find your dialogue is falling flat, or beta readers note that they skim past it, perhaps the dialogue has disconnected from the motivation.
Don't forget, no one does anything for nothing. If your characters are speaking without the goal to get something- anything- then they are doing it wrong, and here's how you fix it.
I learned a trick in an acting class that used The Actor and The Target by Declan Donnellan: decide what your MC want the other character(s) to physically do.
Your MC is participating in a conversation with the purpose of obtaining something, and subconsciously, they will look for or respond to physical cues from the participating character that let them know they've accomplished their goal. As the writer, decide what that physical cue is. Be specific, and don't confuse a physical action with what the MC wants the other to think or feel- they can't see those things and will have no way of knowing they have accomplished their goal. It must be a physical action. The final key is to let your characters respond naturally; keeping an action in mind just makes it clearer when they've accomplished their goal.
After you have a physical action in mind, ask yourself, "What tactic (words and delivery) would my MC use to get the other character to do that action? What if it doesn't work? How will they change tactics?" Let that lead the conversation.
Here's an example of how this exercise might look:
Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are so close to delivering the ring (the motivation), yet Frodo tells Sam to go back home. It's an emotional scene in the movie, even if you're a novel purist and don't believe it belongs there. It was powerful because each word Frodo uses is picked to get what he wants- Sam to leave.
Why does Frodo want Same gone? We can guess it's because he's hungry and tired, and the ring and Gollum are making him think crazy things. However, it seems that he recognizes this, at least in the back of his mind, so we must ask why again to get to the very root of it.
Maybe Frodo is afraid he's going to fail, maybe he doesn't want Same to see him fail, maybe he can't stand the thought of Sam getting hurt.
What does Frodo want Sam to physically do? For the sake of the example, let's say it is to walk away and swear them good riddance.
So, his first words "No Sam, it's you" are an accusation. That should do the trick right? No, instead Sam tries to reason with Frodo, reminding him of things he already knows to be true, and you see Frodo's tactic change. "You can't help me anymore." The words are not so harsh, but they still land with a very personal blow to Sam who has always been there for Frodo. When that didn't work, Frodo sealed the deal with a command, "Go home." Poor, sweet Sam crumples into a tearful heartbroken mess- the physical action is the sign that Sam has gotten what he wants, and he moves on with Gollum into the next scene.
Had the core of Frodo's motivation been different, say he wanted glory, the physical action he looked for in Sam might have been cowering instead, and his tactics would have been different also. Maybe he would have tried belittlement. Maybe he would have tried intimidation
What really makes dialogue a saucy dish that your readers will gobble up is when you then take the participating character and figure out what their motivation is. They aren't just there to give in to the whims of you MC, after all, they must believe that they are the star of their own story. Naturally, they have a motivation as well. They want something from your MC too, and they are looking for that physical activity that is going to give it to them.
This creates an ebb and flow to the dialogue as each character both reacts to and acts upon what is being said. Tension builds as one of them gets close to what they want which often means that the other won't.
Try it out for yourself. Take two characters from your work in progress and initiate a conversation. What is the overall motivation? What do they want out of this specific scene? Ask "Why?" Imagine the physical actions that they are looking for, then duke it out. Craft carefully delivered dialogue aimed to cause a physical reaction. Try different tactics and let them respond as it would suit their character. You will discover a liveliness and a depth to your dialogue that should just give you all the feels.
Give me your best dialogue in the comment section below or share your favorite ways to take your character's dialogue to the next level.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.