A trick for dialogue

Recently, I was having trouble writing a scene. In this scene a man and a woman are having an argument. The scene is third person, past tense, from the woman’s point of view. So I knew more or less what she was going to say, her motivations, her fears, her desires, but I had no clue how the man would respond. Or, more specifically, I knew how he would respond but his exact dialogue and body language, all of that was a question mark.

I don’t like to write passages of dialogue unless I’m in the zone and the characters’ words are flowing freely. In my experience, forced dialogue comes out stilted and false. At the same time, this scene is pivotal and I didn’t feel I could move on until I’d gotten some kind of rough draft down. (Which is another way of saying I’ve been procrastinating on writing the difficult scenes for too long and now it’s high time).

Then one morning as I lay in bed, circling around the characters in my mind, wondering how I was going to get into the scene, I had an epiphany. Why not write the argument from his point of view? So that’s what I did. And just to break myself out of the rut I was in, I decided to write it first person, present tense. And voila! Suddenly his words and body language, his inner life, appeared. Once I was in his head, I understood his motivations, his desires, his fears. And once I knew all of those things, it was obvious exactly what he would say and do.

Exercise complete, I took another stab at the scene. From her perspective again, third person, past tense. Viola!

Another dialogue trick is to have characters speak at cross purposes. And here’s another laundry list of tips for improving your dialogue.

ps. Have you got a completed draft of a novel that could benefit from another pair or eyes? I moonlight as a manuscript evaluator which means I give constructive feedback on works-in-progress. Character and dialogue, plot and pacing, it’s all my jam. I’m taking bookings for 2020 so get in touch for more info or a quote.