Dialog – when two people get together and talk to each other. In case you missed my first post on dialog, you can browse it here.
So, what do you do when you have a scene with dialog that isn’t quite working? Read it out loud? Start over from scratch and rewrite it? Find another writer to hash it over with?
Those are all options. Generally when I come across a scene with a lot of talking and I don’t think it’s quite working I step back and run it through three layers of scrutiny. Before I get to these three things, let me point out that this isn’t a checklist, it’s more like a troubleshooting procedure. If one of these things work, there’s no real reason to keep going, unless you’re really dedicated to perfecting a scene.
The first thing I do is try and identify exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with a scene. Your writing needs to serve your story. Every scene needs to accomplish something in pushing forward your plot, a sideplot or perhaps even the myth arc. Identify exactly what your scene is trying to do, then go through and trim out everything that doesn’t advance that goal. You might go back and add some of what you trim back later, but at least look at it without all the excess fluff. Most likely, it doesn’t need to be there. Hopefully that will give you better, snappier dialog.
If that doesn’t work, it’s time to look at pacing. I know I said it last week, but it’s vitally important that you keep your characters from saying too much at one time, and from keeping too many people from being in a conversation at once. While conversational free-for-alls aren’t that rare in real life, most people will tend to tune out some conversational threads and focus on others. You don’t want that to happen in your scene. By the same token, people don’t tend to launch into huge, prepared speeches in causal conversation. Yeah it can happen, but if it happens more than once a scene you probably need to rework something.
When all else fails, I resort to the index card method. You’ve probably heard writers talk about laying your plot out on index cards and spreading it out on a desk or the floor so you can see the whole thing at a glance. Well, this is the same principle applied to writing a scene. In this case, instead of writing plot points on your index cards, write out the first line of each chunk of dialog, or each action that a character will be taking between chunks of dialog. Then spread them out and start sorting. Move things around, cut things or, if necessary, add them until the scene starts to work like you want. This is a court of last resort, and by the time you’re done the scene is probably going to need a total rewrite. But not necessarily.
Dialog is a tricky thing. It drives plot, gives insight into characters and makes for memorable moments all at once, but if you don’t handle it well it can also leave your readers confused and lost. I hope these tips from the last few weeks will help you to assemble better written and more believable dialog.