Confession time: I love writing dialogue. It’s probably my favorite aspect of writing fiction and I live for dialogue that’s well-written and rife with character development. But that doesn’t mean writing dialogue isn’t hard… it most certainly can be. Which is where this easy peasy dialogue tip comes in!
Honestly, I could do so many posts and/or videos (oh yeah, by the way! I’m back to making YouTube videos again! We’ll see how long that lasts!) just about writing dialogue. Through trial and error, I’ve retained a lot of practical knowledge about it.
But perhaps that will be a bridge to cross some other day.
For now, I’m addressing a specific, easy dialogue tip that addresses a specific (but common) dialogue writing problem: when you feel stuck on a scene that you KNOW needs to be there to further the plot or character development, but the conversation either feels aimless or you’re not sure how to end it naturally.
So without further ado, a relatively cleaned-up version of the transcript of the above video, in case you just really hate YouTube or something…
This Easy Dialogue Tip Will Save Your Writing! (Maybe!)
Sorry for the clickbait title, but I really am excited to share this with you! And I promise, I won’t beat around the bush for hours before telling you what the tip is. In fact, I’ll tell you right now:
When you feel stuck on a passage of dialogue that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose but that you know needs to be there, you need to go back and figure out what each of the characters in the scene WANT from the conversation.
Now, here’s the backstory/rationale to that: way back when, I was editing a passage of dialogue in my debut novel, The Last Celestials (*cough* shameless plug *cough*) and something just didn’t feel right about it. I was stuck. Like, really stuck.
Now, bear in mind, sometimes, that means the dialogue needs to be cut altogether, especially if it doesn’t serve a purpose in the story. But other times, the dialogue needs to stay there, or can stay there, it just needs to be tweaked.
In the case of the scene I was editing, I knew it needed to be there but something just wasn’t clicking. It felt directionless. I couldn’t figure out how to end it.
And then it struck me: I didn’t know what the characters wanted. They were just talking to each other, borderline arguing, but I hadn’t even thought about what their motivations were for having the argument in the first place.
This makes sense in real life, too. Dialogue is a transaction. Not in a capitalist way, though… I’m sure someone out there can unpack that. What I mean is, when you talk to someone, you generally have a reason for talking to them. It’s not always that you want something from them, though you could. But you want something. To tell them about your day. To find out more about them. To make them laugh. To make them cry (but hopefully not). To prove yourself right.
You generally have motivations for talking to someone, even if you don’t realize you have them.
So then take this and apply to your characters! The motivations don’t have to be elaborate. It doesn’t have to correspond with their overall character motivation, though it can. It just has to be relevant to the conversation itself. They have to have a reason for talking in that moment.
As soon as I went back and said, “Okay, character A wants to get to know Character B better. But Character B wants to avoid the conversation altogether – she doesn’t want him prying,” then everything made sense. I knew that everything Character A said would be in service of his goal: getting Character B to tell him how she feels. But then everything Character B said would be deflecting his questions, until eventually, Character A would either push the right button, or abandon the conversation altogether.
Since dialogue in a story is usually supposed to contribute to the story in some way, you can think about this in terms of the reader, too. As the reader, you learn that Character A is friendly, if not a bit nosy, and wants Character B to open up. But you also learn that Character B is closed off and secretive, which leads you to assume she’s hiding something (she is).
In the larger context of the story, depending on a) how you want to pace the character development and/or b) where in the story this dialogue is, this can either serve to ramp up the tension between characters, or it can lead to a moment of catharsis, where Character B finally gives in and reveals something about herself – if not how she feels, then maybe whatever secret has caused her to close herself off.
Are there cases where this may not apply? Sure. You can drop examples in the comments as you think of them. But in general, you can apply this to any instance in a story where two characters are talking to each other, and it will make writing dialogue easier and help you pinpoint why and how it fits into the larger context of the story… or realize that it doesn’t.
Give it a go!
Next time you’re stuck on a scene, give this easy dialogue tip a try and see if it helps you. If not, tell me why! Like I said, there may be situations where it doesn’t apply, and I promise I’m not trying to promote magical writing cure-alls, just tips and tricks!
Is there another easy dialogue tip you’ve found that you would recommend?
What’s your favorite scene of dialogue, in a book, movie, TV show, whatever?
It’s hard for me to choose one, but if I had to pick an example, the “Battle of Wits” scene from The Princess Bride is, in my opinion, one of the most immaculately crafted dialogues in all of media.
And you can definitely tell what the characters want.
Featured Image by Katerina Holmes