My neighbor John loves to work on his hot rod. He’s an automotive whiz and tells me he can hear when something is not quite right with the engine. He doesn’t hesitate to pop the hood, grab his bag of tools and start to tinker. He’ll keep at it until the engine sounds just the way he wants it to.
That’s not a bad way to think about dialogue. We can usually sense when it needs work. What fiction writers often lack, however, is a defined set of tools they can put to use on problem areas.
So here’s a set—my seven favorite dialogue tools. Stick them in your writer’s toolbox for those times you need to pop the hood and tinker with your characters’ words.
#1 LET IT FLOW.
When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. Pour it out like cheap champagne. You’ll make it sparkle later, but first you must get it down on paper. This technique will allow you to come up with lines you never would have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time.
In fact, you can often come up with a dynamic scene by writing the dialogue first. Record what your characters are arguing about, stewing over, revealing. Write it all as fast as you can. As you do, pay no attention to attributions (who said what). Just write the lines.
Once you get these on the page, you will have a good idea of what the scene is all about. And it may be something different than you anticipated, which is good. Now you can go back and write the narrative that goes with the scene, and the normal speaker attributions and tags.
I have found this technique to be a wonderful cure for writer’s fatigue. I do my best writing in the morning, but if I haven’t done my quota by the evening (when I’m usually tired), I’ll just write some dialogue. Fast and furious. It flows and gets me into a scene.
With the juices pumping, I find I’ll often write more than my quota. And even if I don’t use all the dialogue I write, at least I got in some practice.