Monday, January 23, 2012

More Tips for Improving Your Dialogue

Back in 2009, I had the privilege (I never spell that word right the first time - anyone else struggle with that one?) of attending one of Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel seminars. It was a-mazing. I sat next to Erica Vetsch and we both scribbled fast and furious all day long.

I have a couple of Mr. Maass's craft books, and a lot of the exercises we did that day were from his workbook, but there was something different about taking the class. Something about sitting in a room with 300 other writers, my head full of my manuscript, and Mr. Maass challenging the heck out of me from the stage. If I could take that class every time I started a new project, I totally would.

One of the things he did with us that day was having us find a conversation in our manuscript that we felt needed improvement. He then had us rewrite the same conversation using several different styles. First he said to us, "Rewrite the conversation using all insults. Start now. Go."

I just stared at my page. Insults? I was thinking. Chase wouldn't be insulting Gabby right now...

But even as I thought it, I realized that Chase did have a little anger bubbling inside him. As did Gabby. This is what I jotted down:

C: Why are you acting like this? Why do you insist on ignoring what's really going on?
G: Because - nothing is going on. This isn't going to happen, Chase. Not now. Not ever.
C: Why are you afraid of this? Because of where I live? Because of Frances and Marco?

After a few minutes of letting us write, Mr. Maass made another suggestion: Write the dialogue they'd like to be saying. His example was when you're at a restaurant and your food finally comes. The waitress says to you, "So sorry about the wait," and you say, "It's fine." But that's not what you want to say, is it? And that's likely not even what she wants to be saying.

The next time we rewrote the same conversation with a "Rat-a-tat" style. Short sentences, small words. Like:

C: What's with you?
G: Nothing.
C: You look weird.
G: Uh, thanks...
C: I meant strange.
G: That's not better.

The last exercise he had us do was to write the same conversation, but with just one person speaking, with the other not responding.

After the conference, when I tackled that conversation with Chase and Gabby, I ended up kinda combining the different styles, and I was really pleased with the results. The exercise pushed me deeper into my characters thoughts and emotions, and it also pushed me out of my same-ol', same-ol' dialogue routine.

Question for you guys: How often do you pull conversations from real life and put them in your manuscript? Do you have people in your life who provide you with more "gems" than others? (Whether they intend to or not!)


  1. Oo, fun exercise. =) Totally going to have to use this with my hero and the guy who's about to become his best friend, though neither really knows it yet. ;-)

    I have to admit, I use my husband's gems a lot in dialogue. He's just so wonderfully sarcastic--I think I fell in love partly with his sarcasm, LOL. =) And since many of my characters call for a dry wit, it's a lovely thing to draw on.

  2. I love these dialogue posts! :D I'll have to try some of these.

    And...well I pull conversations from real life, OFTEN. It's normal to see me writing down an entire conversation. Then I'll put it aside and use it when it fits/ pick over it when I want to use it. And yes! I have my sister xD Once she reads my manuscript, I think she'll be surprised as to how much of the language is actually her. She's often the one coming up with the witty/sarcastic/perfectly timed funny part that the best friend says.

  3. How often do I take conversations from real life and put them in my stories? All the time. It was actually really helpful when I had to write a scene where they've been driving for several days, and everyone is tired, the future is uncertain, and they're not thrilled about being team mates. It ended up being funny, because it's so much like real life, and yet totally fiction. (Does that make any sense?) :D Good post, Stephanie!

  4. I think I really need to buy this book, because EVERYONE keeps talking about it. Also, these exercises seem really awesome. I usually get dialogue by closing my eyes, picturing the scene, and talking to myself. Then, in editing, I read it out loud once with inflections, once without, and once in my head with and without music to see how the various things are affecting me. For example, if I only like it when I add inflections or m listening to music, then that probably means I need to be making it stronger, because the dialogue can't stand alone without help. Thanks for the ideas!

    <3 Gina Blechman

    1. I hear some people say the regular book is "worthless" and to only get the workbook. I happen to disagree with that ... though if I could only have one, I would get the workbook.

      Love your tips for editing dialogue. Wonderfully creative!

  5. Let me think, I think that it would be my best friends that would provide the dialogue inspiration for me but I don't use their words all the time, mostly I just write what comes to mind.

  6. Whoa! This is totally awesome! This is exactly what I had been needing to here. Thank you so much for sharing. This is going to really change how I write dialogue.

  7. So many people talk about taking conversations from real life, but I have never been able to do that. I should make my IRL conversations more interesting, then, I suppose... ;)

  8. Love this post and all the different ways of crafting the same scene! Totally saving this for later! :)