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How I do dialogue

December 11, 2006
Posted at 9:10 am
Updated: December 11, 2006 - 12:44 pm

I have received several wonderful comments about the dialogue in my stories, and several requests to know how I decide what dialogue to put into a story.

So I thought I'd share that 'phenomenon' with you.

There are actually three ways I do dialogue.

The first is what most of us have experienced on innumerable occasions when we are anticipating having a conversation with someone about something. We hope they will say thus and such. That works in almost any situation, whether it is a conversation with a lover, or a boss, or a friend, or even a stranger. I get mail from strangers all the time, and I have definite hopes about what they'll say.

That's pretty easy to write down. In any given situation I'm writing about, I just imagine myself to be one of the characters, and I know what I hope the other character(s) will say.

But there's more to it than that. I have read hundreds of stories where, say, the mail man shows up at the doorstep, and the naked woman who opens the door says what the mailman hopes she'll say. It's usually something like "Oh ... you caught me naked ... take me now!"

Thus is exposed the problem with dialogue that strictly follows the "That's what I hoped you'd say," technique.

People don't always say what we hope they'll say.

Let's leave that for a few minutes and go on to the other technique I use.

I'll call that one the "Boy, if only I'd said that," technique.

You all know what I'm talking about. You've had a conversation. The person either did or didn't say what you hoped they'd say. But your own responses were less than gratifying. As you think about it afterwards, you realize what you SHOULD have said, and grind your teeth.

As an author, that's just not a problem. You get to say what you wish you'd said, because you have time to reflect on things, and change them during an editing session.

(Hey ... get this! When I posted this blog entry, I thought of something I wish I'd said, and so I came back to it a couple of hours later and I'm going to say it now. The next paragraph is actually an example of what I was talking about above.)

In fact, one of the reasons I try to write a story completely before I start posting it is that sometimes, late in the story, a character says something, or something happens that I wish I'd have hinted at with dialogue in an earlier chapter. If I haven't posted that chapter yet, I can always go back and insert "what I wish I'd said" right where I wish I'd said it.

See how that works?

The third way I do things comes from my history of interviews and interrogations. Before you do an interview or interrogation, a good interviewer thinks up as many possibilities as he/she can, that go along these lines: What if he says this ... what if she says that? How will I respond?

In other words, you "what if" the situation to death, make some notes, and hope you're prepared.

So, while I'm writing, I think about the situation, and what, as one of the characters, I hope another character is going to say to me. As an author I think about what I'm going to do if that character says something else to me, and as both a character and author I think about what I'm going to do and say if the other character says "this".

Then I switch characters and do it all over again.

Simple ... right?