Dialogue Drafting

One of the quickest ways to smashing writer’s block out of the way is by pre-writing the dialogue for your upcoming chapter. Focusing solely on what your characters will say to each other cuts away all the time and energy it takes to set up the scene in terms of describing the environment and the actions the characters will take during their conversations. Stories only move forward because of character interactions and so it’s important to learn to how to do some Dialogue Drafting.

Talking Heads Build the Body

Common writing advice warns writers against turning characters into a bunch of talking heads that exist in a vacuum without non-verbal communication or relation to the environment they converse in. However, for the sake of Dialogue Drafting, the point is to write nothing but the dialogue with little to no “stage direction” that you later turn into narrative.

The point is to have all your characters air out their grievances with each other in whatever stream of consciousness you happen to write if you just focus on what they want to say to each other. A lot of it will inevitably be a bit of small talk before the central themes and conflicts of the story get mentioned, but consider that all as a mere warm up. You will know you’ve hit your stride once you get emotionally invested in their conversations, even if it’s not a heated argument, but nonetheless a critical conversation they must have with each other.

When you’re not concerned about writing any narrative description and let them speak in rapid succession with each other, several things can emerge from this free flow form of writing. You need to free yourself from the expectation to maintain descriptions of the setting, your casts’ physical appearance, and the actions they take within their environment while they have these conversations

Dialogue Drafting can help you:

  1. Discover your characters’ voices.
  2. Reveal what’s truly at stake for each character.
  3. Organically evolve their relationships to each other.

Giving Your Characters Some Singing Lessons

Dialogue Drafting can help you learn how to make your characters talk more uniquely from each other. When all you have is a bunch of talking heads clutter a page or five, you will easily get bored by how similarly your characters speak if dialogue isn’t your forte. Soon you’ll find yourself trying to create different speech patterns for each character to make them stand out more.

Just like singing, dialogue in fiction requires refreshing rhythms and “melodies” in order to maintain reader retention. How you do this is by deciding how much or how little characters speak. For instance, a verbose character contrasted by one who values brevity and concision will react and speak in a drastically different way from one another.

Couple that with the kind of vocabulary each character is equipped with, you can bring your characters’ dialogue to life much more with this in consideration. Do they use big words or simple words? Do they speak too much or too little? Do they speak loudly or quietly? These are all the things to consider when you are crafting a character.

Try and think of it musically: each character is a different instrument in a song. Each instrument, in a well written piece, will do their job in laying the foundation of the song and maybe sometimes get their spotlight moments the way a sweet guitar solo does before letting the rest of the instruments breathe and say what they need to say.

Likewise with your characters, some will have to hang back and not say much before they step in and say their piece especially when a certain point of contention in the conversation means more to them than it does for the others, which brings me to the next point.

Revealing Character Motivations

When you do this dance of inhabiting all of your characters’ voices in rapid succession, they begin to reveal things to you that they truly wanted. Especially things you may not have originally outlined for their GMC’s or for the chapter as a whole. This is because when you’re not concerned with the setting or physical movement of characters, you are actually constantly shifting between their minds and letting them speak for you.

It is an odd thing to consider that these fictional characters we create having a life of their own, sometimes separate from what we intend for them, let alone display in our manuscripts, but nonetheless I believe this is true at some psychological level. After all, the characters we create are simply amalgamations of ourselves and other people we have met, so while they may or may not closely resemble us or the people we have (hopefully) loosely based them on, what stands eternal is the behavior.

What this means is that people may have certain mix of thought patterns and behaviors unique to them, but thought patterns and behaviors in general exist in a universal realm regardless of time and person exhibiting them. There are commonalities among all people, and so the characters we create may not be “real” in a sense, but they are hyper real because they represent various modes of beings human undertake.

I apologize if that’s a little too heady, so a simple way to put it is this:

No matter how many new people enter the world and how different they may be in appearance, they will still inevitably embody common human behaviors. Or even simpler; we may look different from each other, but we’re all almost inevitably the same.

Keeping that in mind when you write a Dialogue Draft, you may start to learn that your characters share common goals, but go about them in a different way, or maybe they have different goals, but approach them in the same way–along with every other combination in the book.

Whatever the case, Dialogue Drafting will reveal the fundamental differences and similarities between your characters, for better or for worse. Sometimes those similarities are due to the lack of individuating them from each other, and other times they’re good story serving similarities that they need to learn and discover along the way.

In doing so, they get to experience the following:

Ever Evolving Relationships

While there is much to be said what people, and characters do to each other and for each other, what relationships all come down to is verbal communication. Your word is bond. What you say to others and how you communicate with them create an implicit promise of interacting that way unless stated otherwise.

If you’re kind and generous then it is implied that people can come to expect more of that from you. If you’re mean and cold hearted then it is implied that people can come to expect more of that from you as well. Until of course the other party says something that is either suspicious of the former and/or opposed to the latter.

We may all have almost the same needs and desires, but how we communicate them and how we mix and match our own values are what’s unique to each of us. What generosity means to me might mean something entirely different for you because we most likely have different ways to measure how generous we want to be respectively.

So that said, another thing you learn from Dialogue Drafting is how your characters communicate the same needs differently, as well as what that could mean for the future of their relationships if they so choose to maintain it. We’re all social creatures and we need each other to survive, but that doesn’t mean we have to get along with every single person on the planet. That would actually be counter productive because you can’t please everybody and not everybody can and will like you.

Again, while behaviors might be universal, how we measure our personal values will be unique across individuals, and it’s in that fundamental difference that creates conflict, as well as pave the way toward relationships that either end up stronger, strained, or severed.

If you’ve mapped out your own Interpersonal Economy for your ensemble of characters, every cost and benefit you’ve outlined between individuals will become more pronounced when you write a Dialogue Draft. It’s through our words that we express our values and it’s through our relationships that we either affirm or deny them depending on any new information that may get us to rethink our positions.

And in the end that’s what all dialogue is really about: characters stating their positions and arguing why their needs should trump the needs of others, or at the very least be taken into account equally if they aren’t already.

Piecing it All Together

Now of course once you’re done Dialogue Drafting, you can’t keep your characters bodiless and nothing but mere heads floating in a vacuum of nothingness. But thanks to the dialogue you have pre-written for your chapter, you are even better equipped to fill in the blanks in regards to the environment and the physical actions they may take in between certain lines.

You will almost always have way more dialogue than you can actually include in your manuscript so this is the part where you will have to trust your instincts and see which lines are worth keeping and which ones need to be discarded. Some lines of dialogue might turn into internal narrative for a first person book, or side insights for a 3rd person one. Some may not even make the cut.

The lines that will make it, though, are the ones you feel strongly resemble what the characters are truly about and actually move the plot along due to the shift and evolution of their relationships from the exchange. Another great benefit to Drafting Dialogue is to get the throwaway dialogue out of the way so it’s much easier for the meaningful dialogue to emerge and be honed in on.

Did you find this Workshop Wednesday tip useful?

Have you done anything similar to Dialogue Drafting before?

Let me know in the comments below, and happy writing, Your Write to Live Lovers!