Writing Dialogue

A frequently asked question at book club gatherings is, “How do you write dialogue?” The quick answer is that I don’t write dialogue, the scene dictates the conversation and the words flow.

The truth is that I have conversations in my head all the time; between my husband and me, a friend and me, or before I retired, my boss and me. I finally learned that the conversations were really my super-ego talking to me about some imagined shortcoming. The super-ego, being the tricky entity that it is, always disguises itself as a person in my life. So, in the case of having an imagined conversation with my boss, he would ask me why I hadn’t finished a report or what I was doing to increase our efficiency. I then had to defend myself and, as embarrassing as this may sound, I could actually work myself into a tizzy, becoming angry and defensive, when in reality the entire event took place in my head and nowhere else!

When I began writing My Darling Dorothy, I found dialogue fairly simple to write. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had learned the skill from those many years of conversations with my lovely super-ego.

The other method I employ when writing dialogue is to imagine I am watching a movie. In the case of My Darling Dorothy, I imagined scenes from films made in the 1940’s. Watching the characters sweep across the big-screen in my mind is a rather entertaining exercise and provides splendid fodder for dialogue development.

The more challenging skill is learning to balance narrative with dialogue. Sometimes it’s easier to express an idea through dialogue, but sometimes a narrative is more appropriate. I find knowing when to move from dialogue to narrative is easier to do in the editing process than while I am writing the first draft. Reviewing the dialogue as part of the flow of the entire chapter allows me to more clearly determine if it is appropriate. If I decide it isn’t working, I can then either switch to more narrative or, in many cases, delete the scene entirely.

Even in scenes where the dialogue is deleted, I find the exercise of writing the conversation helps clarify what I am trying to accomplish in the scene. I ask myself if it deepens the reader’s understanding of who the character is, or for that matter, does it deepen my understanding of the character?

This has been a brief explanation of my process for writing dialogue. I would welcome hearing from other writers about their technique. In the meantime, I think I’ll go have a glass of wine, close my eyes, and listen to the ongoing conversation/movie in my head that just might lead me to my next project!





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