Dialog Part Two

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.

Dialog Part One

Dialog is a major part of just about any story. Unless you’re writing a Castaway or something similar you’re going to write a fair amount of it as you go along. I’m sure a whole book could be written on just the art of writing dialog, but for now I’m going to try and keep it down to two posts. In this first one I want to look at the basics of framing a scene with a lot of dialog. Next week I’ll look at the methodology I use to “debug” a dialog intensive scene that isn’t quite working.

So without further ado, what do you do with a lot of dialog?

  1. Set the scene. It almost goes without saying but all scenes happen somewhere; describing the setting gives you an idea of where your scene happens and lets you set up props or prompts for later. You don’t have to set the whole scene at the start, but at least sketch a basic layout for the readers to keep in mind as the scene progresses.

  2. Have your characters move around. The vast majority of people don’t just sit and stare at each other the whole time they’re talking. They fidget, they get up to get things or gesture with their hands, sometimes they even bury their face in their hands. You don’t have to mention every little tic or gesture, but mentioning these things from time to time keeps the scene realistic and keeps the scene from devolving into huge chunks of talking, which gets tedious.

  3. Place things in the setting your character can use. Have someone at a dinner party gesture with their knife and fork, or a dishrag left in the kitchen can become an impromptu weapon in a squabble between siblings. You don’t have to have a lot of these, in fact not every scene needs them. But a few from time to time are a big plus.

  4. Let the setting of the scene put ideas in your character’s minds. A picture on the wall might prompt a detective to ask about a family’s children, or a pile of clothing left in the corner can spark an argument over whether or not a character is a slob. As with the previous point, you don’t need these in every scene but they help keep the reader grounded in what’s going on.

  5. Give a few of the character’s inner thoughts. People do occasionally stop to collect their thoughts or recall some detail in the middle of a conversation. This is a great way to add background information but you have to be careful not to overdo it. Too much is both unrealistic and interrupts the flow of the scene but the right amount helps break up the dialog and helps the reader get a handle on elements of the scene that might not be entirely clear to them.

  6. Try and keep chunks of dialog short. If you have one person talking for more than a couple of hundred words, at the very most, it’s probably a good idea to find some excuse to break things up. Have the other character interject, or add some business for the character to do.

  7. Try and keep the number of characters in the discussion to a minimum. It’s not natural to have half the characters in the room keep quiet for a page or two at a time, but it does make the scene easier to read. Dialog refers to two people talking, after all. Two isn’t always the ideal number, but fewer is generally better.

When I write a scene with a lot of dialog, those are the things that I keep in mind. Next week I’ll look at some of the things that I do to make a dialog-heavy scene work.