I love exercises. Not physical exercises — oh, dear me, no. You can’t pry my lazy butt off the couch with a crowbar. I mean writing exercises.
Here are some writing exercises to limber up your dialog muscles.
1 Write the same information in the voices of different characters.
The earthier Tom Benson says, “You got the wrong guy, swear to God!”
Lesson learned: Different people convey the same sentiment in different voices.
Bonus points: Make the two people as close as possible to each other in class, education, and experience, but still make them sound different.
2 Write criss-cross dialog.
Ed McBain is great at this. He has one set of characters doing one thing, another set of characters doing another thing, then brings one member of each set together — at a bar, for instance — and has them converse with each other. Each one takes everything the other one says as a swing point to say something about their own activity. It’s very funny, and very tense if the reader, who knows the details of each activity, realizes that the two cases or activities are related.
Lesson learned: People don’t always have neat, progressive, logical conversations.
Bonus points: Make it clear that the two think they’re talking about different things, but are really talking about the same thing.
3 Write a scene without dialog tags.
I once tried to write an entire story without dialog tags, and it got awkward, but it was a good exercise. Dialog tags, just in case you don’t know, are the bits that tag onto a quotation to tell you who did it. “Blah, blah, blah,” he said. Or, if you’re into Tom Swiftian descriptive tags (I hate ’em, except as jokes), “Blah, blah, blah,” she snorted.
So write a scene without dialog tags. Like:
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Lola threw the wet dishcloth onto the table in front of Brad.
Brad picked it up and tossed it into the sink, where it landed with a splash. “Now the table’s all sloppy. Proud of yourself?”
She watched the water spread and drip off the table onto the floor. “I’ve wasted my life with you.”
Why didn’t she understand what he had been through for her? She would never understand. “Same goes for me, double.” He got up and walked out, closing the door with soft finality.
Lesson learned: You can probably use fewer dialog tags than you thought and still identify who says what and how they say it.
Bonus points: The longer the scene, the more bonus points you get.
This is used to great effect on television. This is sort of the opposite of criss-cross, where two people think they’re talking about the same thing, but they’re really having two totally different conversations.
Joseph (talking about walking the dog): I took her out today.
Frank (talking about the woman Joseph met in the bar last night): Where did you go?
Joseph: To the park.
Frank: Cheap date. Did she like it?
Joseph: She loved it! She ran in the grass and made friends with all the people.
Frank: …Yeah? Really?
Joseph: I’m embarrassed to tell you what she did in the bushes.
Lesson learned: Keep track of what your characters have told or might reasonably have told one another.
Bonus points: Do one where the misunderstanding is comic and one where it’s dangerous or tragic.
5 Write a one-sided conversation.
At his best, Bob Newhart did this beautifully. At his least best, not so much. Bob Newhart, before he found television fame, was a stand-up comic who specialized in routines in which he supposedly talked to people on the phone. Of course, the audience only heard his side of the conversation. He worked it for humor, but it doesn’t have to be humorous.
The trick is to state or imply so strongly that the implication is unmistakable what the other side of the conversation is. The bigger trick is to not have your character repeat what the person on the other end of the line has said. “What’s that you say? Janice doesn’t want to talk to me because I hurt her feelings?” Body language can help.
Lesson learned: Each side of an engaged conversation can contain the seed and the fruit of the other side without being repetitive, although repetition is certainly allowed in moderation.
Bonus points: Write one short conversation for comic effect and one for serious effect.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: I just gave you five. What do you want for nothin’? A rubber biscuit?