Hugh Macgregor is a wonderful playwright, director and drama teacher. He also happens to be my husband and best friend. So, I didn’t have far to go to find an authority on writing amazing dialogue. Here’s a great exercise to make your dialogue real and punchy.
Over to Hugh:
What’s great about this exercise?
Bad dialogue often equates to over-written dialogue. It’s amazing how just a few words can convey a word of emotion between characters. Here’s a good way to keep your dialogue sharp and clutter-free.
Timing: 20 minutes
1. Choose two characters, either from a piece of writing you are working on or just pick two names and ages e.g. John, 50, Dawn 45.
2. Start with one character giving him or her the line – which you complete:
Why do you always…?
Why do you never…?
Don’t worry about making the first line original. Start an argument that an audience will quickly identify with.
3. Write a 10 line exchange between the characters. No need for any he said/she said tags. Just use the dialogue. 10 minutes
4. Now count the total number of words. Once you have done this, re-write the conversation making two changes:
1) use half the original number of words
2) use more than 10 lines – aim for a total of 20.
*You may have one long line of dialogue that doesn’t count towards your word count. Make this work for you: see how your dialogue benefits from having one long line of dialogue begin/end a passage of short, snappy conversation.
5. Keep cutting! Now see if you can cut any other words without losing the power of the exchange. Be bold!
Once your dialogue is sharp, you can add some tags (if necessary) and some words which contextualise it in your story – character actions, references to setting etc. You don’t always need to do this though, even in a novel, you can have very simple, direct, dialogue.
Don’t be afraid to have your characters lie. A little dishonesty goes a long way!
Experiment with repetition. We repeat ourselves in day-to-day life all the time; each repetition changes or enhances the meaning of the words being used.