She said what?

I’ve been working on improving my dialogue and came across a chapter in the book Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden. I thought I’d share a few things I learned in the next several posts.

The first thing that struck me was the sentence “Dialogue is a form of action, a potent technique for expressing conflict.” Silly me, I thought dialogue was what people said to one another. Chris went on to say, “It’s the mightiest power tool on the writer’s workbench for making characters come alive.”

It’s all about having the characters reveal themselves, their feelings, their attitudes, and their personalities through their words. But I think the key word is “conflict.” Emotions and attitudes are revealed much more clearly in a heated discussion, a disagreement, even a full-blown argument than what’s revealed in a dull, non-confrontational conversation.

For example, in my current work-in-progress, two friends are speaking. These ladies have been friends their entire lives, and know each others’ greatest weaknesses, strength, and, of course, their secrets. In one of the first scenes in the book, the protagonist, Cassie, has had a particularly nasty nightmare that’s affected her morning mood. Her friend, Talia, recognizes that something is wrong and wants to know the reason for her friend’s funk. Here’s how I could have written the scene (FYI, it takes place in a bakery while they’re baking bread):

Tala buttoned a white smock over her clothing and grabbed a sack of flour from the pantry shelves. “Want to talk about it?”

“I had a nightmare and it really upset me,” Cassie answered.

BORING! No conflict, no tension, no reason to continue reading. So I revised it to add some conflict:

Tala buttoned a white smock over her clothing and grabbed a sack of flour from the pantry shelves. “Want to talk about it?”

“No.” Cassie dumped the required sugar and salt into the mixer.

“Spill it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You have to. We can’t have secrets.”

Cassie grinned. “Some secrets can be good. Like that time you ducked behind the bleachers with Chad–“

“You know about that?” Talia looked horrified. “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”

“Of course not.”

Talia set her jaw. “Tell me what’s wrong and forget all about Chad Barlow.”

Granted, it’s not an Earth-shattering argument, but it’s much more interesting than the original, and it reveals something about these women and their friendship. It reveals their attitudes and personalities while they have this seemingly inconsequential argument. In just a few lines, the reader discovers that this argument is actually the key to something much bigger, but I won’t spoil the surprise for you now.

So I challenge you to go through your dialogue and find the boring, non-confrontational conversations and jazz them up a bit. Add some misunderstanding, or innuendos, or misdirections. Add some anger, or disbelief, or jealousy. Pit best friends and lovers against each other, at least verbally, and see if it doesn’t improve the scene.


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