Writing dialogue is something many beginning writers either avoid or rush. It can be hard to see how you can rewrite dialogue. If a character has something to say, don’t they just say it? And if you – the writer – change how they say it, isn’t that cheating?
The Exercises you’re going to do today are designed to help you write more and better dialogue.
You’re going to need the pages you’ve already written in front of you.
Last time, you – using your pseudonym – wrote about a child and a grown-up finding something. I asked you to make sure they disagreed about what to do next.
Obviously, if you have two characters who agree about everything they may as well be one character.
But two characters who disagree can open up your stories in a way that makes them much easier to write.
However, it’s very very easy to write bad dialogue.
In fact, why don’t you do that now?
On a new piece of paper, write the worst dialogue you can imagine. Remember, you’re not doing this as yourself, you’re doing it under pseudonym – you’re doing it as the writer you invented in the first Lesson.
Take as long as you need.
Then scroll down.
What is bad dialogue?
Usually when I ask people to do this exercise, they write one of a few kinds of dialogue. They write deliberately boring dialogue (often in a realist novel style).
‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine. How are you?’
Or, they write deliberately overwritten dialogue (often in a parody romantic fiction style).
‘My darling, your eyes look like the most brilliant diamonds ever dug from the mines of Africa.’
‘Oh, my dear, your muscles are throbbing with the desire you clearly feel for me deep in your passionate soul.’
Or, they write deliberately overinformative dialogue (often in a thriller style).
‘Have we traced the B-X425 nuclear missile to its hidden lair in deepest Slaka?’
‘Yes, our agent Kayleigh Williams-Grace achieved this for us at oh four hundred hours precisely.’
‘Good, then we can proceed with our plan to overwhelm our enemies by a surprise attack at oh nine hundred hours precisely.’
Often, when people read these deliberately bad dialogues out in class, they get lots of laughs.
In fact, they get a reaction that suggests the dialogue isn’t bad because it’s good for making people laugh.
Let’s pause for a moment.
In this Exercise, I asked you to write the worst dialogue you could come up with, and to do it as a writer who isn’t you. I hope that made it easy.
At the very least, it made it easier than if you I had asked you the opposite – to write the best dialogue you could come up with, and to do it publicly, as yourself.
Often the best way to write well is to take the pressure off yourself by thinking, ‘Of course this isn’t me doing my absolute best, it’s just me trying something out – for the sake of it.’
I have found that using a pseudonym can often free writers up amazingly.
If it’s useful to you, keep using your pseudonym throughout these Lessons. If not, you can put it to one side and pick it up again when you feel like it.
Just don’t obsess in your nothing drafts about being yourself. Sometimes it’s a lot easier not to be.
Don’t think ‘How do I want this story to go? What would be the best I can do?’ Think ‘How could this story go? What would be exciting?’
The Good Stuff
You’re now going to do three exercises each of which has a different idea of what’s behind good dialogue.
Write a dialogue in which your two characters (child and adult) are arguing over what to do with the something they have found.
Make sure that with each new line they say, the conflict between them escalates.
They must never say anything to agree with or placate the other person. Each line raises the stakes.
When you’ve finished, write the word ‘Arguing’ at the top of this page. That’s what we’re calling this scene.
Take as long as you need. Don’t write more than a page.
Then scroll down.
The idea behind Winning dialogue is Power.
What’s important is that all the people speaking are trying to come out top dog.
Watch this famous climactic scene from A Few Good Men for an example of Power dialogue.
Both of the characters here (Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a military lawyer, played by Tom Cruise and Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson) are trying to win the scene. Kaffee wants to force Jessep to admit something he’s been concealing. Jessep wants to get through the trial but also to be true to his values. Their exchanges become more and more challenging and intense. They shout louder and louder. They get closer to the real issues between them. ‘I think you’re a monster.’ ‘I think you’re not fit to be a soldier.’ And when it comes, the rhetoric of Jessep’s long speech seems crushing. But the final win, which is Kaffee’s, is wordless. Jessep has betrayed himself, and will shortly be arrested.
Write a dialogue in which your two characters are both trying to disguise what they really want from the other one. This doesn’t have to be directly related to the something they’ve found. It can be about practical or emotional needs.
Make sure that this is revealed to the reader by the characters’ evasions and inconsistencies.
Each character suspects the truth of the other one, and tries to probe them to reveal it.
Again, take as long as you need.
Then scroll down.
The idea behind Hiding dialogue is Fear.
What’s important is that all the people speaking are trying to keep something secret.
Watch this scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral for an example of Hiding dialogue.
Both Charles, played by Hugh Grant, and Carrie, played by Andie MacDowell, are trying to hide how much they feel for one another, because they are afraid the other doesn’t feel it too. They hide their feelings, paradoxically, by speaking an exaggerated, parody version of what they feel. Carrie would like a sign of commitment from Charles, so she says she expects a marriage announcement. Charles, who is just waking up, is afraid that he might just get what he secretly wants (to have a serious relationship with Carrie). But he’s not up to speed, so he plays along until he realises it’s a joke. They both have moments when they come close to speaking the truth (Charles: ‘That is a tragedy.’ Carrie: ‘But I think we both missed a great opportunity here.’)
Before we come to the next exercise, take a break. And while you’re doing that, try to think about what the third kind of dialogue might be?
If Winning dialogue is about power and Hiding dialogue is about fear, what could be the thing that is behind a different kind of dialogue.
Write a dialogue in which one of your two characters isn’t really listening to the other.
Make sure that this is revealed to the reader by that character’s replies not really meeting up with what has just been said.
Each character is following their own line of thoughts.
They are talking at cross-purposes.
Again, take as long as you need.
Then scroll down.
The idea behind Ignoring dialogue is Ego.
What’s important is that all the people speaking are only giving the others a small percentage of their attention. The rest is spent on thinking their own thoughts.
Watch this scene from Some Like It Hot.
For much of the scene Jerry, being Daphne, played by Jack Lemmon, isn’t listening to Joe, played by Tony Curtis. She’s following her own thoughts of marriage to Osgood Fielding III. The comedy comes from how her answers follow her line of thought, rather than engaging with what Joe is insisting is the reality of the situation. Finally, Joe manages to break through and Daphne becomes Jerry. But the end of the film reveals that Joe’s assumptions are pretty much all wrong, and Daphne’s ‘deluded’ version of reality was closer to the truth. ‘Nobody’s perfect.’
The Opposite Again
Bad dialogue, to me, comes when no winning no hiding no ignoring is going on. If the characters are in complete agreement or close to it, they are being entirely honest or close to it and they are listening as hard as they possibly can or close to it – if all this is the case, what can they possibly say?
People do have conversations like this. But if you overheard one on the bus, you’re not likely to tune in for long. But if two people are tearing chunks out of one another, you might just say on the bus an extra stop.
Last time, I asked you to read ‘Lady with a Dog’ by Anton Chekhov. This is a great short story. There are multiple somethings that are somewhere they shouldn’t be. One of the main examples of this is when the two characters, Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna are first alone together in a private room.
“It’s wrong,” she said. “You will be the first to despise me now.”
There was a water-melon on the table. Gurov cut himself a slice and began eating it without haste. There followed at least half an hour of silence.
Anna Sergeyevna was touching; there was about her the purity of a good, simple woman who had seen little of life. The solitary candle burning on the table threw a faint light on her face, yet it was clear that she was very unhappy.
I would like you to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story ‘Cell One‘.
Think about how the character of the brother is deepened.
What tiny significant details do we get about him?
What are his big significant actions?
To become teacherly for a moment. In looking at the stats of people following this course, I can see what links are being followed. It’s becoming clear that only a small percentage are doing the Readings – or even taking a look at what they are.
I’ll say it very plainly – Reading is how writers become writers. If you don’t read, and re-read, you won’t be read.
Please find the time to do the Reading as well as the Exercises, even if it means taking twice as long to go through the course.