Monday, January 3, 2011

CRAFT: Dialogue

Let's spend this week discussing the CRAFT of writing.

Monday: Dialogue
Tuesday: Conflict
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Editing
Friday: Voice


A year ago, a wonderful agent read part of a WIP that I was really struggling with and offered the following advice: 

 "[This] is a more pedestrian beginning, but I don't think that more dialogue and talking means a scene and action, necessarily, because the dialogue really is very day-to-day, boring stuff."

This was very helpful, because it made me realize that while I was trying to write a realistic scene, it was boring. Just because the dialogue is accurate and realistic, doesn't mean we need to waste words on the page relating the obvious.

THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass:

"A common downfall of many scenes is dialogue. The characters talk, talk, talk, but scenes spin in circles and don't travel much of anywhere...The process of stripping it down and finding the tension in it can be revealing. It can help define the purpose of a scene" (pages 60-61).

Grab a section of dialogue from your current WIP and ask yourself the following questions:
1. Why are your characters talking to each other?
2. What's the purpose?
3. Are the lines bogged down with unnecessary dialogue tags?
4. Is there a source of tension in the dialogue that moves it forward, making the reader want to turn the page?

Here's another great exercise suggested by Donald Maass (paraphrased and shortened by me):
1. Select a two-person dialogue scene from your WIP.
2. Strip out all dialogue tags (he said, she said) and incidental action.
3. Rewrite the dialogue entirely as an exchange of insults.
4. Rewrite the dialogue with rapid fire exchanges with each response only 1-5 words.
5. Rewrite the dialogue with only one character speaking and the other responding with non-verbal gestures.
6. Without referring to the original WIP, rewrite the scene using the best of the results from this exercise.

Here's a previous post on dialogue: Listening to Teenagers

Were any of these tips helpful to you? What is your best advice for writing great dialogue?


  1. Tension is the key. Who is after what?
    This was helpful, Margo. I look forward to reading in the coming days.

  2. Yes, I tend to overdo dialogue tags, and am TRYing to work on that lately...thanks for the great reminder post about how to intro tension and interest into dialogue!