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Friday, November 21, 2008

Bumping your dialogue up to the next level

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Riveting Dialogue

Tips For Taking Dialogue to the Next Level

Here are a few key elements needed to make dialogue sparkle.

Before, I wrote about how to make dialogue sound more natural, but what if you want to bump your dialogue up to the next level? What if you want to make your dialogue really pop?

Dialogue Is War

In the words of Randy Ingermanson, “Dialogue is war.”

Dialogue should have some form of conflict or tension. The characters don’t have to be shouting at each other, but there should be some sort of tension that keeps the dialogue from being a nice, easy conversation between two nice, easy-going people.

Nice, easy-going dialogue is boring.

In good dialogue, a character should be fighting for something: fighting to retain information, or fighting to extract information, or fighting to convey information.

Don’t make it easy on your characters—make the conversation a battle for at least one of them.

Read Award-Winning Plays

Tony Award-winning plays are excellent resources for writers wanting to improve their dialogue writing skills.

Plays are mostly dialogue, and award-winning plays are filled with award-winning dialogue.

The more a writer reads successful or lauded plays, the better the writer gets at seeing the different aspects of truly good dialogue.

Research Dramatic Timing

Learn the rhythm and cadence of the dialogue as it relates to dramatic timing.

This is best seen in movies or on stage. Watch a few Academy Award-winning movies, or (a cheap alternative) catch clips of key scenes on YouTube.

Pay attention to the timing, the rhythm of the words, the cadence of the sentences, the pauses, the flow of the conversation.

Even though dialogue is read, there is an auditory aspect of it. Most readers “hear” the dialogue in their heads.

This part of learning to write great dialogue is experiential—a writer must listen and observe different examples in order to understand timing. It’s a more organic process than other aspects of learning fiction writing techniques.

If you can learn the rhythm of dramatic timing, your dialogue will be that much more vibrant.

Make Strong Word Choices

Even the individual words you use for dialogue can make a conversation insipid or enthralling.

Use strong “power words,” as Margie Lawson calls them in her Deep EDITS online course. Be careful and deliberate with your word choices—make them vivid, emotional words that evoke vivid, emotional responses in a reader.

“You’re a jerk,” she said. (boring)

Versus

“You’re a Bourbon-soaked turd in that toilet of a house.”

Or

“You aren’t worthy to lick the gum off my stilettos.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

As with any skill, strong dialogue requires practice.

Take a writing prompt and write a dialogue-only scene. Then revise, working in “power words” and tweaking the sentences’ rhythm and cadence.

Any extra time you spend on practicing your dialogue-writing skills will be rewarded with rich, vibrant dialogue in your fiction.

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