Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An exercise for amping up your dialogue

Last Thursday, I wrote a very frustrated post about flat, whiny characters. In it, I also briefly ranted about characters who won't just OPEN THEIR MOUTHS AND TALK TO EACH OTHER.

Okay, I'm done yelling. Sorry. It's a touchy subject for me because dialogue is the best part of the story, and my favorite part to write. So let's talk some about crafting killer dialogue. I've done a quick overview before (which can be read here), but let's talk about an actual exercise for amping things up.

This one I read in James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure but he apparently took it from a Jack Bickham book.

The idea is to assign roles to your characters in a scene. They can be the parent, adult, or child.

The parent is the one with the power, the authority. What he says goes.

The adult is the most objective one. The rational, even-tempered one who sees things the way they really are.

And the child is the one behaving with zero rationale. He wants what he wants, when he wants it.

The fun thing is that you get to switch up who plays what. Like your main character might primarily be in the "adult" role in conversations, but see what kind of conflict happens when you make him or her the parent or child.

Because when your characters are all in agreement on something, it kills your dialogue. What's there to talk about? There's zero conflict.

I've pulled two examples of this from a manuscript of mine. Here's my main character, Gabby, in a typical conversation. She tends to be in the "Adult" role.

“We missed you at lunch, Gabs,” Rachel says brightly as I sit in front of her. “Did you finish your homework?”

It takes me a second to realize “homework” had been my excuse for hanging around campus during lunch. “Yeah.”

Palmer flicks a pen and sends it spinning across his desk. “Chase help you?”

Wow, a sentence. “No.”

Rachel blinks at him, then looks at me, clearly confused. “Were you hanging out with Chase?”

“No. Of course not.”

She shakes her head, confused but apparently willing to let it go. “Whatever. Anyway. You know what we decided over lunch, Gabs? We’re going to April’s lake house for Halloween. We’re gonna build a bon fire and have all kinds of crazy fun. You have to come.”

“I can’t. I have—”

“Homework,” she finishes with a roll of her eyes. “Come on, you’ve gotta come. December’s gonna be here before you know it, and I’ve hardly seen you recently. We’re driving up tomorrow after school and staying overnight.”

“My parents would never let me do an overnight.”

What a bummer.

Rachel winks. “You leave that to me.”

But another character, Chase, tends to demote Gabby to child. Here she is talking to him:

“I’m not like them. You know I’m not.”

He flicks the end of a pencil, sending it spinning. “I don’t know you at all, really.”

Although he knew something about me that I hadn’t shared with anyone. And he’d turned my embarrassing secret into a stunt to get attention for himself.

“Well, from what I know about you, I’d say that’s just fine with me.” I hope my look is as cold as my voice. “What’s with that stunt in Algebra yesterday?”

Chase appears not to notice I’m doing my best to intimidate him. He stays silent and smiling. He’s beyond irritating.

“Why’d you do it?”

Chase shrugs, lazy-like. “Why not?”

I grit my teeth. “Because you embarrassed me. Because it’s not true.”

Chase snorts.

“I want an apology,” I say through a locked jaw.

“No way.”

Give it a try with your characters and let me know how it goes!

Have a writing question? E-mail me.


  1. One of my favorite moments in Jewel of Persia is when my heroine is angry at both her husband and brother, who have never met before. She usually greets THEIR tempers with good humor, so it was fun to have her throw the following tantrum at them together (this is from the brother Zechariah's POV):

    Kasia repositioned the babe and shot her husband a glance half amused and half frustrated. “Allow me to make introductions, then. Zech, this is Xerxes, the king of kings and self-proclaimed master of creation, who thinks he can bend all of nature to his whim. Xerxes, my stubborn, idiotic brother Zechariah who understands consequences about as well as you do. You two have much in common. Enjoy each other’s company.”

    With that, she left. Actually left him there, standing in the room with no one but the king and his servants.

    Xerxes stepped to his side, his gaze on Kasia’s retreating back. “She is the only person in the world who would dare speak to me like that.”

    A laugh surprised its way out of his mouth. “She has always been outspoken.”

    “I learned that within moments of meeting her–-and fell for her that quickly.” He flashed his smile Zechariah’s way and extended a hand. “It is good to meet you, Zechariah. Kasia has told me much about you, though she never mentioned we share vices.”

    Zechariah clasped the king’s wrist, and marveled. He may resent the man, but still. He was king. “I suppose some things are common to men no matter their station.”

    “And those things will never fail to anger their women.”

  2. I love when we have opportunities to turn tables like that. What a fun scene :)

  3. Hmm interesting technique... I have to try this. =)