THE 7 TOOLS OF DIALOGUE

#3 SIDESTEP THE OBVIOUS.
One of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make with dialogue is creating a simple back-and-forth exchange. Each line responds directly to the previous line, often repeating a word or phrase (an “echo”). It looks something like this:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Hi, Sylvia.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Outfit? You mean this old thing?”
“Old thing! It looks practically new.”
“It’s not new, but thank you for saying so.”

This sort of dialogue is “on the nose.” There are no surprises, and the reader drifts along with little interest. While some direct response is fine, your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“I need a drink.”

I don’t really know what is going on in this scene (incidentally, I’ve written only these four lines of dialogue). But I think you’ll agree this exchange is immediately more interesting and suggestive of currents beneath the surface than the first example. I might even find the seeds of an entire story here.

You can also sidestep with a question:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Where is he, Sylvia?”

Hmm. Who is “he”? And why should Sylvia know? The point is there are innumerable directions in which the sidestep technique can go. Experiment to find a path that works best for you. Look at a section of your dialogue and change some direct responses into off-center retorts. Like the old magic trick ads used to say, “You’ll be pleased and amazed.”

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