Every line of dialogue must serve a purpose. This instruction was something that I mentioned in my introductory post on the subject, How to write realistic dialogue? I half-dismissed it because every line of your writing – not only conversations between characters – must serve a purpose, but now I want to explore that point in detail and go over ‘What is the purpose of dialogue?’ What are the main things you can achieve through your characters having a conversation?
Llook at this short exchange from Mad Men:
The writing in the first season of Mad Men is brilliant, and this short and straightforward exchange shows so much about Don Draper and his world, as it must do, being the opening scene of the pilot episode. Through his conversation with the busboy, Sam, we learn about the class and race hierarchy of 1960s New York, but that’s not it.
What we learn about Don Draper through this dialogue:
- He comes off as a self-assured character. When interrupted by the bartender, he remains calm and composed, ordering another ‘Old Fashioned.’
- He’s a man who plays by his own rules, not society’s.
- We learn that Don Draper considers himself beyond social constructs and class, which are points that become more and more important as the series goes on. Don Draper is a man at war with his identity and background and maybe this hints at a lack of belonging.
- The final thing we learn from this short exchange is that Don Draper is curious about understanding people’s motivations. He is interested in people’s thought processes and decision making because it’s central to his profession as an advertising copywriter.
What is the purpose of dialogue?
This fantastic example shows what a writer could be thinking when they ask themselves, ‘What is the purpose of dialogue?’ In the example I shared, we learned about social injustice and many things about Don Draper. But, reduced to the simple facts, we understand that he’s calm, cool, doesn’t consider himself above anyone ‘beneath’ his social status and class, plays by his own rules, and is curious about how people think.
Your dialogue doesn’t have to do all of this. This is an exceptional example of writing dialogue to introduce a character and a world within an opening scene. I shared this example not to intimate you from writing, but to show you the possibilities within even a simple conversation. So start writing. Nothing is stopping you.