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3 Tips for Developing Solid Dialogue

Dialogue is perhaps the most important characterization tool at a fiction writer's disposal; unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult techniques to do well. Stiff, unnatural or overdone dialogue can doom the liveliest characters or stall the most exciting plot. But great dialogue can propel your characters and story off the page, deep into the imagination of your reader.
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Dialogue can be highly suggestive of stories, characters, complexities, scenes, themes. It is one of the best ways to brainstorm, because dialogue is infinite. It can come from any number of characters about a universe of circumstances. How to trigger that first line of dialogue? So many ways, but here are a few starters from James Scott Bell, author of Circumstantial Evidence, Final Witness and Blind Justice:

  1. Listen. Snatch a line from an overheard conversation, write it down, then let it take off in any direction.
  2. Open a dictionary and pick a word at random. Write a line of dialogue using that word. Now write a response. Now what? Approach your line of dialogue from three different angles — character, plot, setting — and ask yourself a series of questions about each: CHARACTER Who is saying this? What does this character look like? What is this character's occupation? Why would he/she say such a thing? What is the dominant emotion this character is expressing? PLOT What just happened to cause this character to say the line? Who did he/she say the line to? Does this other character oppose the first character for some reason? What is it? What are the objectives of the characters in this scene? SETTING Where is this dialogue taking place? What are the smells? What are the sounds? What does the character see around him/her? Why is he/she in this place at this time? What does this setting tell us about the background of the character? If you go through questions like this (and you can certainly add your own), you will have a nice core of material to work with. It may be that this is as far as you go. The story you see may not be one you're interested in exploring further. That's fine. Go find another line and do the exercise again.
  3. Write reams of dialogue. The best way to get good ideas is to get tons of them and then choose the best and throw the rest out.

These tips are excerpted from the lecture materials for the Writing Effective Dialogue course offered by WritersOnlineWorkshops.

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