Just over a year ago, my best friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jayne Tanner, kindly wrote a guest post for me on the subject of Dialogue. It was such a good piece that I didn’t feel the need to revisit the subject in my own blog topics for a while.
If you haven’t read it, or if you struggle with writing good, natural-sounding dialogue in your own stories, I highly recommend you take a look at it.
So, what has made me want to go back to the subject of dialogue now? Actually, it was Sarah (although she didn’t know it at the time).
What you need to understand about the two of us (aside from the fact that we are both total geeks and bonkers with it), is that we have very different approaches to writing. In fact, we are pretty much polar opposites when it comes to our respective processes.
I am an underwriter, Sarah is an overwriter (if you don’t know what that means, click here). I am very much a planner, whereas Sarah can dive headlong into a new world and find it as she goes. I consider myself to have had a very good writing day if I have put down 2,000 words or more on paper. Sarah, on the other hand, is borderline hyper-graphic (my assessment, not hers) and most days she can churn out well over 2,000 words without breaking a sweat.
If I sound jealous, it’s only because I am.
But I digress.
None of this has anything to do with dialogue, but it does serve to demonstrate just how different writing can be from writer to writer.
This was highlighted to me recently in a discussion I had with Sarah about writing dialogue. A discussion that went something like this:
ME: Do you ever write out the dialogue first before working on the whole scene?
SARAH: No, I don’t. Do you?
ME: Oh, so very much yes!
SARAH: You’re such a weirdo.
This conversation was over WhatsApp and it devolved quickly into a gif-war after that.
Friendly banter aside, writing the dialogue before anything else in a scene has saved me on more than one occasion.
The technique is simple and is particularly helpful when writing a scene with a lot of exposition, or if the scene is some sort of turning point for your characters, and what they say to each other is crucial for the overall story.
You just forget about everything that is going on around the characters. No description of what the room is like, what they are wearing, or eating or doing.
Everything is stripped back to just the characters talking. When I do this, I essentially write a script of what the characters are saying (much like the brief exchange above between myself and Sarah).
I may occasionally add a few directions in brackets, like [pause] or [impatiently], to help orient myself as I go, but nothing more than that.
In doing this, I find that I can navigate the conversation more naturally, and I can steer it where it needs to go and change parts of it without having to redo great swathes of narrative at the same time.
Once I am happy with the conversation itself, I will start the scene afresh, this time working on the narrative itself, setting the scene, getting into the head of whichever character holds the point of view for that scene and working in the dialogue I have written as I go.
What I have found doing this is that the dialogue will change slightly as I put it in the full context of the scene, but the essence of it remains unchanged. And most importantly, the scene itself flows more freely when I don’t have to stop every few minutes to work out what is said next – because I’ve already done that.
This technique has helped me write myself out of a corner on several occasions and I highly recommend it to anyone who is stuck on a particular scene for any length of time.
Sarah might think you’re a weirdo because of it, but to paraphrase the Cheshire Cat: