Writing Dialogue: Shannon Style

December 7th, 2010 | Blog Uncategorized


Okay, I had a request from a follower to talk about my methods for writing dialogue, so I'm going to give it a try. But I should probably preface this by saying that the title of the post is a little bit of a misnomer. I will be talking about writing dialogue, but I won't be talking about how *I* write dialogue, because I honestly don't know how I write most of the dialogue I do. I write dialogue almost completely unconsciously. (No really, I can't tell you how often I stare at the screen and think: where did THAT come from?)

Thanks to all my character building exercises (and my way too vivid imagination–my characters are so real they talk to me) I don't really spend a whole lot of time thinking: what would the character say here? I just know. In fact, I usually get so lost in the scene that it's like I can't type fast enough to get the conversation down, and I only really know what I wrote once I go back and reread.

That doesn't mean I don't have to revise though. Usually I have to cut at least a third of the dialogue simply because the characters rambled on way longer than they needed to. And sometimes I'll have to revise because the character(s) hijacked the scene and took the emotions somewhere I don't want them to go, so I have to step in and find a way to stop them from saying what they seem to want to say. (Yes, I realize how crazy I sound. I swear I'm relatively sane.)

But none of that is, I'm sure, particularly helpful to any of you, since I have a feeling most of you are far more normal than that. I do maintain, however, that one of the key elements to writing dialogue is knowing your characters.

I know filling out character profiles can feel like drudgery, but it is so worth it. So if you're struggling with dialogue, that's my first and best piece of advice. Step back and get to know your characters better. Figure out what makes them THEM, what makes them different from everyone else. Their dialogue usually comes naturally after that. (You can find more info on how I build my characters HERE.)

I'm sure that's still not enough, though, so I'm also going to share three tricks I learned in film school (screenplays are allllllllllll about the dialogue), that I have occasionally used to shine up some conversations in difficult scenes:

Remove the dialogue tags and reread: One of the hallmarks of good dialogue–imho–is that it needs to be specific to the character. Your reader should know who's talking just from the way the dialogue is worded, without needing a dialogue tag to tell them. And dialogue should never be interchangeable between characters. Each character should have their own distinct “voice.” So the best way to check that is to remove all the dialogue tags and reread the scene to see if it's easy to figure out who's saying what (and don't worry, you'll put them back in when you're done). If you can tell who's talking without being confused, you probably have the dialogue right. But if you have to stop and think, “who's saying this?” you need to revise.

Act out the dialogue out loud: I know most of you probably read your draft out loud to yourself before you declare it, “done” (and if you don't, you should try it. It's AMAZING what you find that way). But that's not quite what I mean. I mean: pretend you're auditioning for a play and the scene you're performing is your book. Read the lines that way, attempting to convey the emotion or comedic timing or verbal cadence of the characters. I know it's embarrassing (best to do this one when no one else is around) and I know we're not all actors, so it probably won't be an Oscar-worthy performance. But it doesn't have to be. You'll still be able to spot problems, even if your acting skills leave much to be desired. If there's no way you can say what's supposed to be a sweet, romantic line without giggling, well…that tells you something, doesn't it? Or if the sad lines don't really feel sad. Or if the jokes don't feel funny. You really get a sense for what feels like real, believable conversation when you do this. Give it a try if you're struggling with your scenes.

Ask yourself: what's the character's motivation?: “What's my motivation” is a classic actor cliche for a reason. They need to know why the character says or does the things they do, so they can understand it  and be able to perform it. So when I was studying screenwriting, it was drilled into me that I needed to know the motivation behind every line or gesture, because the actor might ask me about it. And it was amazing how often, when I analyzed my scene from that perspective, I found out the answer was simply, “I don't know.” Not good enough. Take the time to really think about why the character says what they do. And if you can't find a reason for it, change what they say to something that does have a reason. Totally takes the scene to a whole other level.

I wish I had a more magic formula than that–or that I could really explain how my dialogue appears on the page–but that's kind of the best I can do. I hope it helps.

Any of you have any other suggestions for writing dialogue that I missed? Please, help a girl out and share your secrets in the comments!

Oh, and if there's any particular aspect of the way I write you'd like me to cover in this Shannon Style series, (or even other stuff like queries, blogging, Twitter, whatevs) feel free to leave me a suggestion in the comments. I have a bunch of them planned already, but I'm always open for more ideas. 🙂

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