The course: Fiction: Crafting Dialogue
We learned a lot about the importance of conflict in dialogue. To make dialogue interesting, the characters need to have objectives that are in conflict with each other. To practice creating conflict, we looked at a scene from the film Oleanna and tried to identify the action each character was trying to perform on the other character in the scene with each line they spoke.
As part of our homework, we were asked to listen carefully to real conversations around us. What is interesting in real conversations is that people don’t usually say exactly what they mean. There’s always subtext, and the writer’s challenge is to convey that subtext without “telling” too much.
We also spent time cutting the dead wood from dialogue. While real life conversations have plenty of filler words and small talk, that doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Every word needs to be able to move the plot forward or help with character development. All that extra stuff can be pruned away.
We were asked to take a scene we had previously written and improve the dialogue using the principles and techniques taught in this class. I very rarely write fiction (or any genre with dialogue), so I took a scene from one of my only fiction projects, a mystery-romance novel.
When examining my scene, I found that I hadn’t considered my characters objectives enough and it was lacking in conflict. I was fairly clear on the objectives of one of my protagonists, Florence. But I had to dig deeper to explore the objectives of the other protagonist, Tom. I realized I had only really conceived of him as a love interest and I hadn’t tried to build a character with complex emotional needs.
Returning to this project for revisions, I found there were still many words and sentences that were not contributing enough to the plot. It was especially challenging to create dialogue that was concise but that also sounded authentic to the period (late 19th century London).
Outside of the dialogue, I found places where I could make sentences more active and where I could “show” rather than “tell.” For example, instead of telling the reader that the girl who answered the door looked like a maid, I showed her wearing an apron.
Finally, I cut several gratuitous exclamation marks that I was relying too heavily on to telegraph the emotions in the scene.