1. Keep it short: 3-4 lines between ” “, then insert an action, change speakers, switch to a quick thought. This creates more white space, suggests more movement, forces you to be cogent and quick.
2. Keep it snappy: This is conversation, not a lecture. Go for demand-reply, stimulus-response… aim for conflict within the conversation. SHOW the conflict by snapping back and forth. They don’t have to be vicious as long as they can interrupt each other. 🙂
3. Keep it interactive: Use conversational cues like interruptions, repeated keywords
“You should give him a refund, dad.”
“Refund? Refund?” (That’s from the great film Breaking Away.)
with back-and-forth question-and-answer or provocation-response dynamics.
They can echo each other or contradict each other or mimic each other’s rhythms. Or they can interpret each other —
“Just once, I’d like us to have a Christmas, just the two of us.”
“Come on, what you really mean is, you hate my mother.”
“Okay, I hate your mother.”
4. Keep it dynamic: The conversation should change the plot in some way if possible– she reveals something she didn’t mean to, they figure something out together, he makes an enemy…. Also show the conversation changing as it goes on. Don’t get stuck in a static is-not/is-so conflict repetition. They start out agreeing and end up realizing that they’re at odds, or they start out hopelessly deadlocked and talk their way to a truce.
5. Keep it subtext: Use dialogue to show what lies underneath—a flirtation? A secret? A deception? What’s being concealed yet still revealed?
6. Keep it meaningful: Forget the “hello, how are you?” Make every dialogue exchange count. Start conversations in a provocative way, like: “Where the hell have you been?” or “I should have known I’d find you here,” or “Hey, it’s you! I’ve been dreaming about you.”
Okay, a few other suggestions to put the conversation into your dialogue:
7. MAKE IT MOVE
“Talking heads” aren’t just on TV’s Meet The Press. They’ll be there in your story, if you don’t supply setting details and appropriate dialogue action within the dialogue blocks. Conversations don’t take place in some indeterminate space, and people seldom have time to devote solely to talking. So make your dialogue move by having your characters interact with their environment by reacting to the setting and moving around in it.
8. SET IT UP
To bring setting into the conversation, look at where the conversation is taking place. That’s going to affect the interaction if you let it. If they’re outside on a bluff on a windy day, they’ll have to shout or the wind will snatch their words away.
Look for intrusive setting aspects– sun might make her shade her eyes as she tries to see the hero’s expression as he speaks. In a living room, a stereo might be playing softly in the background, and he might stop speaking when “our song” comes on. An annoying air-freshener might make her cough and then go throw open the window before she can finish what she says.
Don’t forget about the setting just because the conversation is so good. Find little details, but fitting ones, and see if you can occasionally sneak them in between the quotes. You don’t need to choreograph every line, but keep returning to some sense of where they are and what they’re doing. For example, if they’re in a movie theater, their lips will be greasy from the popcorn. They’ll have to whisper, then they’ll have to shut up when the person in front hisses at them. One might even have to storm up the aisle to the lobby, and the other follow, so they can finish their fight before the big action scene comes on.
See if you can activate static scenes by coordinating the conversation with some actual plot action, such as dressing for the awards banquet where the villain will be honored.
9. MAKE IT MATTER
I know it hurts to contemplate cutting out some of your best dialogue just because it doesn’t move the plot. So don’t cut it. Just make it move. Make it active. Make it irreversible. Keep all the wit, but sharpen it so it has a real effect. Feelings get hurt. Tempers fray. Secrets get revealed. Lovers start out at loggerheads and end up hand in hand or vice versa.
Read over a scene of dialogue and ask, “What effect does this have? What happens because of this?” And if you find the answer is “nothing,” consider what you need to have happen here. Go into the characters’ point of view. What are their reasons for conversing? Are they in accord with each other, or at cross-purposes? What response is the first speaker demanding? What happens if she doesn’t get it? Will she compromise? Give in? Insist? How does this change the relationship or advance the plot?
- Choose a dialogue passage and read it over as if you were not the writer but the reader.
- Note where you get confused, and determine why.
- Use the techniques you’ve learned to make this passage more clear and meaningful for the reader.
Best of luck with your story! Just remember that you KNOW dialogue. You’ve heard it all your life. Apply what you know instinctively to your writing, revise to make it more meaningful and focused, and you’ll have active, interactive, and individualized dialogue.