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First time novelist, long time writer here. I'm looking for creative writing exercises to help with my dialogue. Any ideas?

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You might like this article: terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/07/05/… –  JSBձոգչ Sep 19 '11 at 13:03

8 Answers 8

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Get a video recorder and a few friends.

Explain to your friends what the scene is about, and what you want to have happen. (Eliot and Alec walk into a bar and order a drink. They start talking about inconsequential stuff. Their friend Nate walks in and asks Eliot for the $50 Eliot owes him. Eliot says he already paid Nate. Discussion/dispute/argument ensues.)

Have everyone ad-lib until you finish the scene.

Play back the recording. Listen to it. Listen to the rhythm of human speech. Listen to the ums, the ers, the pauses, the stuttering. Listen to how people talk over each other and interrupt. Listen to how a drunk guy repeats himself and slurs his words.

Then watch it. Watch body language. Watch what happens in the silences. Watch facial expressions. Watch how the bartender reacts when Eliot gets a beer and Alec orders a gin and tonic.

Now transcribe what you heard and saw. Write down every um, every glare, every snort and gesture. Have your friends read over it and confirm or edit what you wrote.

You may or may not use exactly what you ad-libbed for the book, but it will give you an idea of how actual people speak to one another and how they move and react when they're talking.

You could do this off TV as well, but sometimes actors are working too hard at acting, and ad-libbing is more of a guarantee that you'll get spontaneous reactions.

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I'm seeing mostly of playwriting/ stage suggestions. I like this. I'll never get write in that type of format but I like the approach to the novel form. –  TheIrishGuy Sep 13 '11 at 19:42
    
You don't have to write for the stage to understand how dialogue sounds to the ear. The characters are performing in your audience's head, in a way, so you should create a scene which can be visualized easily and feels realistic (unless it's your goal not to). –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 13 '11 at 20:35

Here's an exercise that my writing group used:

  1. Think of a scene that is largely conversation. Draft the scene as usual.
  2. Rewrite the scene using only dialogue.
  3. Rewrite the scene using only narrative.
  4. Rewrite the scene using everything you've learned in this exercise.

When I want to practice something, I like to identify some key variables and play with them. What are some of the key variables in dialogue? (Maybe: goals and agendas, characters' knowledge of each other, characters' attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters, ...)

So, starting from a drafted scene with plenty of dialogue, change one of the variables and rewrite the scene:

  • Give the POV character a secondary goal or hidden agenda.
  • Give a non-POV character a hidden agenda.
  • Change one character's attitude toward the other.
  • Change one character's knowledge about the other.
  • Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses).

Perhaps other folks can offer additional variables to play with.

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I like your concept of variables, i.e. having a goal to work in the conversation itself, and not necassarily in that particular scene/chapter. –  TheIrishGuy Sep 13 '11 at 18:43

After you have written a dialogue, you can try to improve it by switching from direct statements to indirect ones. It can make the dialog more interesting (e.g. ironic or sarcastic), less dull. But don't overdo.

Instead of

"How do you want to stop me?"
"I take make pistol here and shoot you."

write

"What should stop me from walking through that door?"
"Oh, I could ask my friends Smith and Wesson. Maybe they want to paint the wall behind you with your blood.

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Good suggestion. Though I have a tendency to do this naturally. I'm working on getting away from it. –  TheIrishGuy Sep 13 '11 at 20:17
    
Although the second fragment sounds fresh and funny, I am not able to believe that two real people could have conversation like that. Maybe, if they both were unhealthy self-confident (or just drunk or loaded) ... –  Nerevar Sep 14 '11 at 14:59
    
@Indoril: Who wants to read dialogues of real people? No, honestly, just imagine James Bond speaks to Dr. No. Do you expect them to sound like real people? Most real conversations are dull. If you want "better than life" characters, pep them up. –  John Smithers Sep 14 '11 at 16:30
    
@John Smithers: No offense - who wants to read (e. g.) the dull dialogues of John Steinbeck's characters? –  Nerevar Sep 14 '11 at 17:09
    
@Indoril: I think you got the idea :) –  John Smithers Sep 14 '11 at 17:20

Jim Van Pelt has a great one:

In a nutshell, two students talk to each other so that each speaks twice. One of them records what they said. That produces four lines of raw dialogue like this:

“Are you practicing with the band tonight?”

“Yeah, we qualified for state, so we’re doing extra time.”

“Congrats! Where’s state this year?”

“Colorado Springs. The same place we did it last year.”

The exercise is, without changing any of the dialogue, to insert thoughts, actions and descriptions so that the reader is in a scene instead of just seeing a record of speech.

It's worth reading the whole entry, for student responses.

The key here is that dialogue, and its effect, are heavily dependent on the surrounding description and action. You can play the same dialogue a dozen different ways - and trying to do that is a great exercise for understanding how to choose which way to play yours.

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I think the name for this is "the open scene." Lots of fun. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 13 '11 at 20:36

A scriptwriting exercise that always helps make a nice shape out of dialogue. Follow the instructions without reading them all the way through the first time. Just do each step one at a time:

1) Take a sheet of paper and write in the margin down 20 lines the letters A and B. They don't have to just swap e.g. ABABABABABAB but you can have no more than two the same in a row so AABABBABABABAAB = fine but AAABABABBBBAAABABBB = wrong.

2) Now on each row that has a letter in the margin you are going to draw some dots and dashes. Sort of like quasi Morse code. You may have a combination of up to any three on each line but you are not compelled to put three on any of them. In the end your shape could look like this:

A .

B _ . _

A _ _ _

B . _

B _ _

A . _ _

B . . .

A _ .

A _ _

etc...

3) Now, think of some dramatic subject for a scene. Maybe, a doctor breaking it to a patient they have a terminal disease. Or a husband telling his wife he is leaving her. Or a criminal confessing his crimes to a police detective.

4) Finally, you are going to use the plan you have created to create a short script. By now you may have guessed that the A and the B are character assignations e.g. criminal (A) and Detective (B). The dots represent short sentences or single word exclamations. The dashes represent any normal sentence greater than three words. So to give an example:

Criminal: Is that recording?

Detective: Everything you say in here will be recorded. So... you were telling me about McGann.

Criminal: You've got to understand that he pushed me to this. He got greedy and the greedier he got the less scruples he had. It wasn't always that way.

Detective: It wasn't? How was it before McGann got greedy?

Did you make girl scout cookies? Help old ladies with their shopping?

Criminal: No, it... Look, I'm not trying to justify anything. I just want it to be over.

Detective: I understand. It's okay. Carry on.

Criminal: McGann and I, we've been running a long time. He...

He was a good guy, back at the start. I know you guys don't think so but he was.

etc...

You can of course, do this deliberately and introduce a character C etc. Try not to think about the random part, assigning the dots and dashes, it makes a natural rhythm that mimics the way people speak as they think.

HTH

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WOW, I've never seen that kind of structure before. That is COOL! –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 13 '11 at 20:37
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You could use the dialogue structure to send secret messages! –  Dale Emery Sep 13 '11 at 23:16
    
@Dale: That had never occurred to me! –  One Monkey Sep 14 '11 at 8:09

Follow others

Be aware of good dialogue when you find it. If you're working in a genre, find exemplars in that genre.

Conversations are not dialogues

Look at the whole dialogue between two people. Some great dialogues start on page 10 and run to page 300. The entire noir fiction genre lives on great dialogue. Watch how additional parties are included.

If you 'get good at dialogue' without seeing the long haul, you end up packing too much in to each conversation, and they sound camp and clever, pithy.

Dialogues are workhorses

A good dialogue reveals and transforms relationships, offers information (with a personal twist), creates touchstones of insight or humor you can return to, and proves your characters' emotional trajectories.

I spent time practicing and using structures and methods. Like braces, I have grown out of them. You should do them. But I can tell you how I do dialogue now.

Be your characters

Writing dialogue is like playing chess against yourself. You spin the board and try to forget what was at stake for the 'opponent.' But the best dialogues are between whole people with whole views and epxeriences.

Understand who the character is - background and experience, point of view Understand where they came from before this conversation Understand why they're having it (nothing is random) Understand what they want Understand what they're afraid of, or hiding Understand what the underlying relationship is, the judgments, the histories, etc between the speakers

Understand dialogue as a tool, not a necessary hurdle

Dialogue is a powerful tool to move the story forward. (Hopefully, you do this with every damn word.) I try to move descriptive and informational content into dialogue and use my own descriptive phrasing to paint images.

This converts the overbearing narration into something fluid, possibly playful. Instead of an author banging out the course of someone's day, you let them tell someone later in the day. That's cool because you add their personality and perception.

Increase power through abstraction

Better, have someone else describe that person's day in their presence. Now you have two people's personalities and perceptions.

The levels of abstraction are powerful. You can juxtapose relevant aspects of one character's personality (dour, serious cop) against those of their chronicler (angry, footloose son; relaxed, retired father; fun-loving, flamboyant new significant other; loud-mouthed bum on the street corner watching a bust).

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"Some great dialogues start on page 10 and run to page 300"? good gravy, who talks that long? –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 19 '11 at 20:50
    
How about relationships? The dialogue is, to me, all the conversations between two key characters. –  mitatur Sep 20 '11 at 11:37
    
I think you misunderstand me. Your sentence is saying one scene, which is a dialogue between two (or more) people, goes on uninterrupted by other events for two hundred and ninety pages. Really? Is it in a book by James Joyce? –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 20 '11 at 12:21

First choose the genre that you intend to write.

Find a good example of this genre. (even better than the printed page is a movie or tv show)

Pick a scene and transcribe the dialog.

It might sound hokey but it will give you a sense of brevity, pacing, cadence, and interchange.

(Monkey see. Monkey do.)

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A not-so-noble but working approach is to eavesdrop ;) If you don't mind, go sit at a coffee shop or park and listen to the conversations of random people. Write down their dialogues and try to improvise on them. Everyone has their own style of talking. Some people may sound more interesting than others. But, please don't get overexcited and start stalking them! :D

Hope this helps. Cheers!

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