Dialogue scenes are very revealing.
They can show characters’ personalities, relationship, plot, backstory, setting ...
Trying to do all of this at once can seem overwhelming.
Keep in mind, you will be revising or editing. You can get write the basics and add some richness during your revisions.
To create distinct characters’ speech
Think about the character’s personality. How would they say something as opposed to another character? How would they respond to an accusation, compliment, or request they didn’t want to commit to?
When you feel your characters, you can create individual language patterns.
Add richness to a conversation
Action beats show how characters say something, or how they respond to what others say and do.
Maybe one character takes a step back, trying to distance themselves from a rude person.
Maybe another steps closer because they won’t be intimidated.
Action beats can also help you work in setting.
If someone puts something on a table, this gives you an opportunity to describe the table. But if the table isn’t important, don’t bother with long descriptions.
She set her wine on the coffee table. The sound of glass on glass grated on her already frazzled nerves.
If it can reveal something about backstory, it’s important and you can add details.
He placed his cell phone on the end table, which he and Julie bought at a little antique shop on one of their few vacations. The intricate vines carved into the legs were what she had loved most about it, but Jacob never thought it fit into their modern decor.
You can reveal backstory with side comments or a digression in conversation.
Try having a character bring up a related event or quip about a previous discussion.
“Can you look at me when I’m talking to you?”
“You know I hate that you’re always on your phone.”
“I recall you yelling at me on our last date night.”
All of this while moving the plot forward?
Yes. You can do it!
Let’s look at a first draft's dialogue.
“What are doing?” James asked.
“Nothing,” Samantha said. She swirled the wine in her glass.
“I meant, why are you drinking at ten in the morning?” he said and put his hands on his hips.
She replied, “It felt like the right thing to do today.”
“So, you’re day drinking now?” he asked.
“Yep,” Samantha said and took a sip.
James walked over, tried to take the glass from her hand.
She held the glass tighter and put her other hand around it, saying, “Don’t.”
-Said and asked are used too often. While we learn some things about the characters, we don’t get a great sense of who they are. What changed today that made her drink at ten? Are they friends or in a relationship? Married? Is James against drinking, her drinking, or that it’s only ten in the morning?
“What are doing?” James asked his wife when he walked into the living room.
“Nothing,” she said and swirled the wine in her glass.
He stepped next to the couch and put his hands on his hips. “I meant, why are you drinking at ten in the morning?”
“It felt like the right thing to do today.”
“I think you picked the wrong time to start day drinking.”
“Don’t care.” She took another sip.
“We have to be at the funeral in thirty minutes.” He grabbed for the glass, but she clutched it tight with both hands.
“Don’t.” Her tone was sharp, but her eyes were tearing. “She was my mother. And if I want to drink—”
“Yeah, yeah. You sound just like her.” He shook his head and turned. “Thirty minutes.”
Characters, relationships, and backstory revealed through dialogue.
“Get your feet off my couch.” Emmi tapped the toe of my shoe. I slowly moved one leg, then the other, just to see her left eyebrow raise.
“I’ve been living here for a year. Why don’t you call it our couch?”
“Because I bought it,” she said, pushing my knee over, and huffed as she sat beside me. “Sorry. I’ve had a tough day.”
“Tell me about it.” I exaggerated struggling to pull myself up and bumped her arm. “No, really. Tell me about it.”
She leaned forward, unholstered her 9mm, and laid it on our beat up coffee table. “I had to arrest Billy again.”
“No way!” My eyes opened wide. “What’s up with that kid? He used to be such a sweet boy.”
Emmi shot me a look. “He still is a sweet kid.”
“Running around the apartment complex. Asking if anyone needed anything fixed or offering to go to the shop to get them milk.”
“He’s running with the wrong crowd now.” She turned and sank into the couch. “I don’t know how to help him this time. B & E is one thing. Armed robbery is another.”
“Armed robbery! Wh—”
“Where did he get the gun? He won’t say. Hopefully, he asks for a lawyer.” She leaned into me, raising that eyebrow again. “Any ideas where he could find a good lawyer?”
“Oh, no. No,” I said and leaned back. “I’m not a criminal lawyer. I help small businesses negotiate deals, not armed robbers and murders.”
“He did not murder anyone. And I wasn’t thinking you could do it.”
“Yes, you were.” I slid to the other end of the couch. “I know you, and your not-so-subtle suggestions.”
“But you could,” she pleaded.
I crossed my arms with finality.
“Or maybe, talk to him ... Find someone who—”
“Fine. I’ll make some calls. See who’s willing to try to get a repeat offending, armed teenager out on bail.” Running through the possibilities in my head and coming up with exactly one person, I went to grab my phone. “But you know as well as I do, if he doesn’t ask for a lawyer, only the public defender—”
“I know. I know.”
With this example, we get a sense of their relationship through actions and dialogue, leaning on each other and finishing each other’s sentences. They have individual personalities. Emmi comes across as more serious yet flirty, while the other character is lose with how she speaks and is more emotional.
How can I create great dialogue?
See things through your character’s eyes. Get into their heads.
What do they care about? How do they react to different people? Does their speech change when they are talking to their boss as opposed to their friends and family? If not, does this cause issues in either place?
Dialogue can seem boring, but so much can be revealed through great dialogue.
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