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The 7 Tools of Dialogue
January 25, 2011 by James Scott Bell Stick these seven dialogue tools in your writer’s toolbox for those times you need to pop the hood and tinker with your characters’ words. My neighbor John loves to work on his hot rod. He’s an automotive whiz and tells me he can hear when something is not quite right with the engine. He doesn’t hesitate to pop the hood, grab his bag of tools and start to tinker. He’ll keep at it until the engine sounds just the way he wants it to. That’s not a bad way to think about dialogue. We can usually sense when it needs work. What fiction writers often lack, however, is a defined set of tools they can put to use on problem areas. So here’s a set—my seven favorite dialogue tools. Stick them in your writer’s toolbox for those times you need to pop the hood and tinker with your characters’ words. #1 LET IT FLOW. When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. Pour it out like cheap champagne. You’ll make it sparkle later, but first you must get it down on paper. This technique will allow you to come up with lines you never would have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time. In fact, you can often come up with a dynamic scene by writing the dialogue first. Record what your characters are arguing about, stewing over, revealing. Write it all as fast as you can. As you do, pay no attention to attributions (who said what). Just write the lines. Once you get these on the page, you will have a good idea of what the scene is all about. And it may be something different than you anticipated, which is good. Now you can go back and write the narrative that goes with the scene, and the normal speaker attributions and tags. I have found this technique to be a wonderful cure for writer’s fatigue. I do my best writing in the morning, but if I haven’t done my quota by the evening (when I’m usually tired), I’ll just write some dialogue. Fast and furious. It flows and gets me into a scene. With the juices pumping, I find I’ll often write more than my quota. And even if I don’t use all the dialogue I write, at least I got in some practice. #2 ACT IT OUT. Before going into writing, I spent some time in New York, pounding the pavement as an actor. While there, I took an acting class that included improvisation. Another member of the class was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. When I asked him what he was doing there, he said improvisational work was a tremendous exercise for learning to write dialogue. I found this to be true. But you don’t have to join a class. You can improvise just as easily by doing a Woody Allen. Remember the courtroom scene in Allen’s movie Bananas? Allen is representing himself at the trial. He takes the witness stand and begins to cross-examine by asking a question, running into the witness box to answer, then jumping out again to ask another question. I am suggesting you do the same thing (in the privacy of your own home, of course). Make up a scene between two characters in conflict. Then start an argument. Go back and forth, changing your actual physical location. Allow a slight pause as you switch, giving yourself time to come up with a response in each character’s voice. Another twist on this technique: Do a scene between two well-known actors. Use the entire history of movies and television. Pit Lucille Ball against Bela Lugosi, or have Oprah Winfrey argue with Bette Davis. Only you play all the parts. Let yourself go. And if your local community college offers an improvisation course, give it a try. You might just meet a Pulitzer Prize winner. #3 SIDESTEP THE OBVIOUS. One of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make with dialogue is creating a simple back-and-forth exchange. Each line responds directly to the previous line, often repeating a word or phrase (an “echo”). It looks something like this: “Hello, Mary.” “Hi, Sylvia.”
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“The beer’s nice and cool.” There are no surprises. I didn’t see you. I might even find the seeds of an entire story here. And how do you do that? Like a diamond cutter. I’ve written only these four lines of dialogue). Mary. “It’s really an awfully simple operation. I know what your own dear grandfather.” the man said.” Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always. “There can’t be no idle hands in His Kingdom. Consider this excerpt from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants. but thank you for saying so.” “My. By using a combination of sidestep. The man speaks: “Should we have another drink?” “All right. that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.” Krebs said. Hemingway gets the point across through a brief. That’s part of the fun of being a fiction writer.” #4 CULTIVATE SILENCE.” The girl did not say anything. no matter what words you might come up with. Mary. Look at a section of your dialogue and change some direct responses into off-center retorts. When you polish your dialogue. Her silence is reaction enough. Divide your novel into fourths. Wouldn’t we all like to have those bon mots at a moment’s notice? Your characters can. Jig. A powerful variation on the sidestep is silence. Who is “he”? And why should Sylvia know? The point is there are innumerable directions in which the sidestep technique can go.” “My. In this story.” The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table. “You’ll be pleased and amazed. “It’s not really an operation at all.. You can also sidestep with a question: “Hello.” “Where is he.” the girl said.” “Outfit? You mean this old thing?” “Old thing! It looks practically new. Like the old magic trick ads used to say. It’s just to let the air in. “It’s lovely. your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious: “Hello.” the man said. “My.” A man and a woman are having a drink at a train station in Spain. my own father. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. “I’ve worried about you so much. Experiment to find a path that works best for you. the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). I pray for you all day long. that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.” his mother went on. “I know you wouldn’t mind it.com/article/master-these-seven-tools-of-t. He uses the same technique in this well-known scene between mother and son in the story “Soldier’s Home”: “God has some work for every one to do. I didn’t see you.” “I need a drink.” his mother said.” “I’m not in His Kingdom.” I don’t really know what is going on in this scene (incidentally.” Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate. Harold.. But I think you’ll agree this exchange is immediately more interesting and suggestive of currents beneath the surface than the first example. that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.” “Sylvia. compelling exchange. We’ve all had those moments when we wake up and have the perfect response for a conversation that took place the night before. told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I have a somewhat arbitrary rule—one gem per quarter. Jig. Silence and bacon fat hardening. While some direct response is fine. “We are all of us in His Kingdom. I know how weak men are. Hemingway was a master at this. Harold. silence and action. you take what is rough and 2 of 4 1/25/2011 7:04 PM . and the reader drifts along with little interest. find those opportunities in each quarter to polish a gem.” “It’s not new.Writer’s Digest . It is often the best choice. What are your characters feeling while exchanging dialogue? Try expressing it with the sound of silence.” “Sylvia. We don’t need anything else to catch the mood of the scene. It’s really not anything.” This sort of dialogue is “on the nose. #5 POLISH A GEM.The 7 Tools of Dialogue http://writersdigest. Sylvia?” Hmm.” The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
usually between two characters. Moe Greene is angry that a young Michael Corleone is telling him what to do.” “What did you call it?” “Was a she. craft believable dialogue & get the attention of agents with: The Writer’s Little Helper Become a WD VIP and Save 10%: Get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket. I guess that’s why John. too—by using these tools to make your dialogue sound just right. The point is you can take almost any line and find a more sparkling alternative. screenwriter Mario Puzo penned. Often they heap it on in large chunks of straight narrative. leaving the feeling of real speech. He might have said.com orders! Click here to join.” And so forth. though it is really nothing of the sort. place this backstory in a scene in which John is confronted by a patient who is aware of the doctor’s past: “I know who you are. #7 DROP WORDS. He had been drummed out of the profession for bungling an operation while he was drunk. Here is a standard exchange: “Your dog was killed? “Yes. It sounds like real speech. he creates a feeling of verisimilitude in his dialogue. “You know nothing. “I made my bones when you were in high school!” Instead. Then have the information appear in the natural course of things. How can we give the essentials and avoid a mere information drop? Use dialogue. Start tinkering.. Instead.” “What did you call it?” “It was a she..The 7 Tools of Dialogue http://writersdigest. Puzo wrote something a little racier). This is a favorite technique of dialogue master Elmore Leonard.” “If you don’t mind I—” “From Hopkins.” Charles said. Here is the clunky way to do it: John Davenport was a doctor fleeing from a terrible past.” John said. Just remember to use these gems sparingly. Also check out these items from the Writer's Digest's collection: Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Beginnings. my neighbor. Notice it’s all a matter of a few words dropped.” It sounds so natural. Backstory—what happens before the novel opens—is especially troublesome. that’s it. You’ll see results in your fiction—and have fun. The perfect comeback grows tiresome if it happens all the time. Using tools is fun when you know what to do with them.” This is the way Leonard did it in Out of Sight: “Your dog was killed?” “Got run over by a car. Pick your spots and your characters with careful precision and focus. there’s always a danger of overdoing it. a 1-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop. tap at it until it is perfect. create a tension-filled scene. is always whistling when he works on his car. All of Leonard’s dialogue contributes to characterization and story. Middles & Ends Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint 3 of 4 1/25/2011 7:04 PM .com/article/master-these-seven-tools-of-t. “I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!” (In his novel. I called her Tuffy. confronting each other. Learn how to create strong characters. run over by a car. First. This is a much underused method. yet is lean and meaningful. Get them arguing. “You’re that doctor. #6 EMPLOY CONFRONTATION. and your dialogue will thank you for it later. In the movie The Godfather.Writer’s Digest . By excising a single word here and there.com. it increases the pace of your story. Many writers struggle with exposition in their novels. As with any technique. name Tuffy. Yeah. but it not only gives weight to your dialogue. You killed a woman because you were soused.
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