How I write dialogue

Striving for perfection

One of the few things I really try to perfect (not merely do well, but get exactly right) in my writing is dialogue. I'll go over it again and again, trying to get it everything to sound right. The editing process is so hard, it seems like it's never going to be right. But what about the first part? What's the best way to write a scene that is mostly dialogue? I've recently come up with a technique that is work pretty well for me and I thought I'd share it with my follower.

When I come to a scene that is going to have a lot of dialogue, it's usually because it's a pretty important scene. Dialogue is used for some many different purposes. It reveals character traits, pushes the story in different directions, defines relationships, and many other things. Usually, I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to go and have to get it on the page as quickly as possible. This can be difficult when adding dialogue attribution, action clues, and emotional responses. So I don't.

A new way to write dialogue

I write the scene out like I'm writing a play. There's a great template you can create on MS Word that allows you to automatically jump between fields without having to change it manually. When you are typing a CHARACTER and press enter, it goes to DIALOGUE. When you press enter at the end of DIALOGUE it switches back to character. This helps me write out the scene as fast as I can type (which still isn't fast enough).

If you're anything like me, when you get to a dialogue-heavy scene, it really feels like the characters are talking to you. If you've done a good job of developing three-dimensional characters with unique voices, they'll do most of the work for you.

Again, I do this by rewriting over and over again. For instance, I've been writing a scene that explains the backstory of the main antagonist of one of my current WIPs. I kept jumping to a scene where he's talking to a high school track coach, and every time it sounded phony. After the third attempt, I realized that I didn't know the coach at all. I didn't know his voice, but this was a critical scene that explained why the antagonist was the way he was, so rewrote it three times before even getting a rough draft that I liked. And I abandoned the dialogue altogether. It just wasn't working.

But when you know the scene is coming and has to be carried by dialogue, that's not an option. You have to find that sweet spot, and that's not always easy. I find that the best thing I can do when writing these scenes that I know are critical, is to know when it's not working. And when it's not, I stop and start over. And then I do it again. I feel like Thomas Edison, in a way, when asked about the invention of the light bulb. "I have not failed," Edison said. "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Is it the best, most efficient way for me to work? Probably not. I'd probably be better off if I sat and talked it over with five or ten other writers until we "broke" the story. But I don't had five or ten other writers. So I have to be five or ten different writers. And when I write, I try to come at it from completely different directions. And I usually find it in the third or fourth try.

Then, when I find that sweet spot, it really is impossible to keep up with my mind. I can hear the characters talking back and forth and it's more like I'm only an audience to the conversation, not as though I'm creating it. It's a wonderful place to be, even if nearly impossible to find. Writing isn't something writers do because it's fun. Writers write because they have to.

The worst part of writing is the fleeting inspiration. You know what you want to say, you had it worded perfectly just a moment ago, and then it disappears. I'm it sure if there's a way avoid it 100%, but I know it's damn hard for a moment to disappear if I'm writing about it right then. The fleeting moments come when you wake up from a dream and can't grasp what it was you just saw. And then come for me when I'm driving home and I have to decide whether to run every stop sign before I forget or pull off into someone's drive way and write down my idea on a napkin from Taco Bell.

But I hope that as I do this more and more often, those moments of inspiration will become more frequent or easier to hold on to. I doubt it's true though. I fear that those moments will always be the most difficult. Stephen King said that it is the moment staring at the blank page right before beginning that is the scariest. I'm not sure if I agree. I don't really struggle with starting a new story. That's usually pretty easy. But that moment when I'm stuck between two points in a story and I know what has to happen but I can't get there. I hate that moment.

But again, I hope that that moment gets less scary and less frequent the more I write. But I don't think that will ever be true either.


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