The best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting). What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.
With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict. If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories. In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time. It’s a two-fer!
Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen. For many writers, it takes time and practice. More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity. It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.
To spar effectively, it takes some exercise. So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).
[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell. I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.
Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene. Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it! Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth. A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said. Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it. What you’ll end up with is a very long string of exchanges.
Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.
While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise. Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth. If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with. Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.
Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene. You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about. One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech. While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech. In essence, it’s speech with purpose. Here’s an exercise to employ.
This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.
- Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
- Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered. Looks for objectivity.
- Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…
The premise is simple. Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out. What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda. It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters. A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance. As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other. Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.
Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D). While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it. This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.
Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them. This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue. During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life. But do it from different perspectives. This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.
So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:
- Movie Narrator: “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion. Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
- Mad Scientist: “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production. Eureka!”
- Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really. I first observed you tugging on your diaper. It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth. Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”
Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.
You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life. If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.
That’s it for today. I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future. Do you use any of these exercises? Do you have some you would add to the list? I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!