Writing Dialogue: Exercises

Read Your DialogueThe best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting).  What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.

With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict.  If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories.  In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen.  For many writers, it takes time and practice.  More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity.  It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.

RichardSimmonsSept2011.jpg

From Wiki-Commons

To spar effectively, it takes some exercise.  So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).

[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.

Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene.  Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it!  Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth.  A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said.  Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it.  What you’ll end up with is a very long string of exchanges.cat hungry.jpg

Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.

While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise.  Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth.  If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with.  Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.

Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene.  You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about.  One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech.  While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech.  In essence, it’s speech with purpose.  Here’s an exercise to employ.

This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell.  It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.

  • Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
  • Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered.  Looks for objectivity.
  • Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…

The premise is simple.  Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out.  What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda.  It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters.  A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance.  As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other.  Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.

Dialogue in History

Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D).  While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it.  This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.

Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them.  This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue.  During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life.  But do it from different perspectives.  This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.

So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:

  • Movie Narratorwrite dazzling dialogue:  “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion.  Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
  • Mad Scientist:  “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production.  Eureka!”
  • Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really.  I first observed you tugging on your diaper.  It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth.  Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”

Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.

You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life.  If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.

question markThat’s it for today.  I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future.  Do you use any of these exercises?  Do you have some you would add to the list?  I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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24 responses

  1. I love good dialogue. This book is on my to read list… soooo many books sooo little time. Lucky for me I’ve been told I’m good with my dialogue and it’s lively and interesting… Still need those greens 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s great news for you! Positive feedback, in my opinion, is the best gauge for us to determine if we are doing it right or not. Especially when it comes from people intimate with your genre.

      Dazzling Dialogue is nice and short, so there’s no huge time investment if you do get around to it! 😀 Thanks for stopping in today.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These exercises are good, but when I first tried to write how people speak, I just listened in (read: eavesdropped) on conversations and wrote exactly what I heard. It helps that I’m a pretty fast typer 🙂 I feel this gets you out of your head, where things aren’t always what they seem, and into the real, rough, dirty world we live in where people have their own verbal tics. For stories I’m working on, I’m big on reading things aloud and even acting it out to see if what’s on the page matches what sounds authentic and what is physically possible. On a poop note: the first time with peas… wow…. just…wow… The next day there was 3 full diapers before I could finish my first cup of coffee.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are some solid suggestions! I always recommend speaking passages aloud like you mentioned doing. I even do it myself. I pay close attention to commas and adhere to the page as printed when I do it. It’s always interesting how sometimes you look at an exchange of dialogue on screen and it’s golden, then you speak it aloud and it’s broken. It’s also a vital practice for any writer who plans on converting their book to audio.

      It must be interesting for you now to sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop (if you find time with Zef). Have you reached a point where your brain instantly translates French, or do you still have to sort it out sometimes? I was miserable at French and Spanish in both high school and college. I picked up a bit of Japanese when I lived in Sasebo (mostly from bars and taxis), but I honestly have lost most of it.

      The poop struggle is always looming and very real. I want out a few days ago and forgot to switch out his diapers to the next size up in the diaper bag. This was the beginning of a series of unfortunate events. All told, it was laundry/bath time when finally got home. Oh yeah, and I had to clean the carseat…

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      • Luckily, I don’t have to worry about the car seat (we don’t have a car in Paris for the obvious reasons) but the stroller seat has had to take a couple of showers. My French is okay. I lived in Morocco for six years where French is one of the main languages one uses to get by, so it’s been of necessity more than anything else.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow. Lots of good stuff here to try out, as always. I have two tips to add. (They’ve worked for me, though of course your mileage might vary.)

    1. Read and reread an author whose dialogue sparkles.

    I learned what I know about dialogue by reading Georgette Heyer. She’s like Aaron Sorkin if Aaron Sorkin wrote Regency romance novels. I’ve never read an author who’s better at fast paced, witty, verbal sparring matches.

    I like to think that I’ve absorbed a few of her tricks. The way her characters break off for asides, interrupt each other or even talk over each other–and most importantly, the way each strives to advance their own agenda.

    Her dialogue isn’t natural, but neither is Aaron Sorkin’s. (No one is that witty in real life.) But, like Sorkin, she tricks you into making it feel as if the dialogue is natural.

    2. Try a bit fan fiction. Seriously. If you’re a devotee of Supernatural, for example, you know how Dean Winchester talks. You know his cadence, his contractions, his slang. You know that there is no world in which Dean ever said “whilst.” So (even if you’re British to your core) while you’re writing words for him, you’ll banish that one from your vocabulary.

    And that’s actually a good exercise. Dean doesn’t have the same vocabulary as, say, Crowley. If someone handed you a page of dialogue between them, without any indication of which one was speaking when, you’d still know the difference.

    And that’s something we can all work on in writing–making each character sound distinct. Writing dialogue for characters from your favorite shows (ideally ones who come from different worlds, like Dean and Crowley) can help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for these additions! You are constantly giving me great advice to add when I do revisions (you’ll be getting linked when these posts recycle).

      1. This is brilliant suggestion. It’s echoed by any legit author who has ever pumped out a “On Writing” type book on their process.

      2. I love that you mentioned this because there are lots of great writing tools to be pulled from writers who create for television, theater, and cinema. Even the first reference book I mentioned, (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting) was written with those mediums in mind.

      As for Supernatural, you are right on. Idjits became part of my vocabulary thanks to Bobby. However, how can we forget this character and his gems, “This isn´t funny, Dean. The voice says I´m almost out of minutes,” or, “”Yeah, my noodle… remembers everything. I think it´s a pretty good noodle.” Hah!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wrote a very elaborate comment Corey and I’m quite angry because apparently my internet conked out and it never sent. So the past 2 hours or so I’ve spent reading people’s writing and commenting and liking things has gone to waste.

    I already have a hard time keeping up with everyone and feel super guilty if I’m unable to like something I genuinely like or even worse, am unable to comment.

    Now I just realized I spent forever doing all that and feel even more guilty because I’m not going all the way back and commenting on everything because I can’t remember everything I said word for word and that bothers me.

    End rant

    At any rate, know your article was wonderful. I felt it touched on many a fair point, and while this isn’t the wonderful comment I originally left. I referenced Tarantino and his films being great because the dialogue alone, carries these films (without all the other awesome stuff).

    The best write great dialogue. There, a paraphrased, way less in depth version of what I wrote originally. *Sigh*

    Liked by 1 person

    • What just happened to you is exactly why I gave up writing comments with my iPhone. Not only was it tedious (because I ramble, like you) but it was also heartbreaking when I accidentally would hit send to early or it would simply vanish.

      I like Tarantino when it comes to dialogue. Some people get turned off by the monologues, but in my opinion, most of them are crafted perfectly and are packed with all kinds of hidden meaning and metaphor. I was going to give an example, but really, it’s hard to pick just one movie where he does it well. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Four Rooms, and the list goes on. I’m looking forward to seeing The Hateful Eight!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I still need to see The Hateful Eight myself. I can’t wait! Xp Tarantino is excellent at dialogue and metaphors within. I love his films, and I also love Rodriguez as well.

        Those two are hellishly great film makers/writers.

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  5. Dialogue’s a tricky one. It’s not just a matter of observing your surroundings like in description, you can’t just go and listen to other people speak (since most conversations in real life tend to translate into bad dialogue).

    What we really need to know is that, unlike real life, characters in a novel will all tend to have unique voices. It might sound forced, but I think this is the way to go about it, and a quick way to add personality to it.

    But once again, another great post. And those books you mentioned do strike my interests…my medieval fantasy dialogue can slip into cheesy dnd territory sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you do manage to find the time to check the books out. For some writers it does seem to help to listen to people talk, but I think the trick is adapting what you hear and stylizing it to make it unique to the character and story. Like you mentioned, it can be a tricky thing.

      I think I remember reading Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) explaining how she would jot down unique things she heard people saying and alter it to use in her stories. As a dad/hermit, most of the dialogue I hear is Thor babbling incoherently, though.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave some thoughts today! Best of luck to you with your writing.

      Like

  6. Great post! I like the idea of narrating our lives in our characters’ voices. For me, I imagine the dialogue in my mind between the characters. Many times, I’ll also imagine their actions and quirks while they talk, too. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s awesome you think in this way. Coming up with action beats to add to dialogue tags is likely very easy for you! Many writers have to battle “floating head syndrome” but when you think like you do about dialogue it solves the problem before it starts.

      I appreciate you leaving some thoughts and hope your current projects are going well 🙂

      Like

  7. The hard part is to remember that sometimes real life conversations can be boring in text form. Also, you’ve got to remember that written dialog lacks the cues provide by body language so you have to express it in other ways. Overall, another winner!!

    Like

    • Whatever works! I’m never going to recommend someone to deviate from what is giving them the best results. I will admit I’m a little jealous! Thanks for taking the time to read today and all the best to you with your current projects.

      Liked by 1 person

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