Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Draft 8 - Ten Tips for Getting Dialogue onto the Page

The characters we love and remember, with few exceptions, become real to us through dialogue. For many readers listening to the characters is the best part of the book -- so much so that they scan or even skip narration to get to the dialogue. The most effective dialogue moves the story forward, reveals character, and sounds distinct. It is compact, rich in subtext, and, like poetry, begs to be read out loud.

This can put a lot of pressure on the writer. How can you do all these things at once? What if the voices in your head refuse to be lyrical, on task, and engaging? What if the voices don't even show up?

Last time, I talked about preparing to write dialogue. Do that work ahead of time (and I always advocate setting things up the day before so the muse has time to get his/her act together), and your chances of having the words flow will increase. But what if they don't? Here are ten suggestions to get you going and keep you going when you have a dialogue-filled scene:
  1. Depend on the rewrite - Give yourself permission to do a second rate job. All the magic of dialogue? It rarely comes through in the first draft. The good news is that it doesn't have to. You have as many chances to get it right as you want. Don't make life impossible for yourself. Have some fun.
  2. Get the voices in your head - Sometimes you can't shut them up, but try to summon the voices if you don't hear them. Picture the characters. Ask a few questions out loud and have them respond out loud. Be rude to them and get under their skins.  Or lure them in. If they still don't show up, fake it. They are likely to join you after a few painful exchanges on the page that make them sound wrong.
  3. Find the heart of the scene - Ideally, you already know what the characters want (or, better yet, desperately need) before you start writing, and you have some sense of why this scene is part of the overall story. If not, go ahead and work yourself into the scene with as much "Hi. How are you" and such as you need to, but watch for where a character get involved and emotional. This is the real start and gives you what you want. Then make sure the other character responds to this. As in improv, your characters need to accept what comes their way. Don't let them change the subject (or succeed in changing the subject).
  4. Lean on the contrasts - The bigger the differences are between your characters, the easier it is for them to be interested in each other and come into conflict
  5. Look for beats - The best dialogue changes in direction. Important information is revealed. Goals are redirected. Stakes change. A good scene has three to five of the beats. If everything is the scene is working out as expected, have a character throw a monkey wrench into it.
  6. Bring it to a clear ending - Make sure, even if you have to note it down in an explicit way that won't survive rewrite, that the scene arrives somewhere. Good scenes generally answer the scene question (with the character get what she needs) with "no" or "yes, but." And, when you're drafting, don't cheat by interrupting the conversation with someone coming through the door with a gun. Finish the scene. You can always restructure it to be cut off in the rewrite.
  7. Try dialogue only - Good scenes are broken up with action, body language, thoughts, and description. But these can slow you down in the drafting stage. If you suspect you can go faster by ignoring or only briefly noting these, do it. Leave the "he saids" for later.
  8. Act - No part of writing is more like acting that dialogue. Do what actors do. Stand up so your body is freed. Use prompts and props to bring out the character.
  9. Change your tools - If the keyboard isn't working, shift to longhand. Or dictation (my preference for dialogue).
  10. Remember who's there - It is difficult to shift back and forth between different heads. But your scene may require three or more characters. That makes it all too easy for the writer to unintentionally put a character to the side for an extended period of time. He or she gets forgotten, often even in rewrites. While most scenes feature two characters, the other characters can play a vital role. They can screw things up for one or the other of the featured characters by asking a question or throwing in a fact at just the wrong time. This needs to happen "in character," of course, but make them essential to the scene.
Use these suggestions only as you need to. They are helps, not step-by-step instructions. And, though they may help you create a better first draft, the goal here is to get the words on paper. Perfecting those words is what the dialogue is about.

If any of this helps, please let me know. And, if you have your own tricks for drafting dialogue, please share them here.

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