You’ve read all the dialogue tips, you understand the concepts that make for strong dialogue, but your characters’ conversations are still coming across flat on the page. It could be that you don’t fully understand your character’s voice, or it could mean you just need more practice! These exercises are intended to help you focus that practice and experiment with different types of conversations (and for you to have fun with in the process). Enjoy!
I know I got this particular exercise from somewhere else, but I can’t find it now to give due credit. I think it’s a common enough suggestion that it’s reasonable to include anyway. For this exercise, distinguish two characters by only their dialogue. No tags or actions. Just the way they speak. Keep in mind their background (educational, cultural, etc.) as you shape their vocabularies, speech tics, and dialects.
The trick with this exercise is to work at shaping unique voices without going overboard on speaking quirks, accents, etc. By all means, use those tools, but try not to overuse them. A good way of testing the balance is to read the exchange aloud and adjust the places that sound stiff or ridiculous.
Looking to boost your character voice? Explore the values that inform your character’s behavior and speech with the character voice questions!
2. Silence speaks volumes
This exercise is perhaps better labeled a communication-writing exercise than a dialogue-writing exercise, since the point with this one is to use as few spoken words as possible. Have your characters communicate without speaking for a whole scene, or as close as you can get. Give them a reason they can’t speak, or just create a context in which they don’t have to use words but do still communicate with one another.
You could approach this exercise from a perspective of characters who use a non-verbal language, but the point of the exercise is more to play with body language and behavior as communication devices.
3. “…But then I’d have to kill you”
Give one character (or both/all characters) a reason they cannot make their point directly. Choose the goal your character has in the conversation and then prevent them from talking in a straight line to get there. Maybe there’s someone in the room for whom the conversation would be inappropriate, or it would spoil a surprise, or the character has been threatened with harm if they achieve their goal, or their position in the group or society doesn’t allow them to speak candidly.
Explore the subtext and movement that the character would employ in order to accomplish their goal.
4. The real McCoy
When working to create realistic dialogue, look to reality. For this exercise, transcribe a real-life conversation. Capture the words, tone, and movement involved as best you can (without being creepy!). When you’re done, look over what you’ve written and make note of accents, speaking patterns, body language, etc. Some of these things can be used elsewhere, some can be adapted, some you won’t use at all. The idea is to get a feel for real conversation and to expand the range of tone and movement for your characters. This is a great exercise to try if you find your characters nodding and shrugging too often! (Trust me, I have the same struggle, lol.)
Another benefit of this exercise is to compare real-world dialogue with fictional dialogue. While we aim for realistic dialogue, we don’t want it to be so real that it’s boring–or annoying. If we wrote “like” as often in our characters’ dialogue as we say it in real life, our readers wouldn’t stick around long! Take the conversation you’ve dictated and strip it down, removing the fat, so to speak, without losing the character of the exchange.
5. Balance in all things… or not?
As authors, we can sometimes be too nice to our characters–and that can crop up in the way that our characters treat and talk to one another. We like to think of conversations as an equal back-and-forth, but sometimes they’re not–all the more so in fiction which is so often driven by conflict.
In this exercise, play with imbalance. Put together a talkative character and a quieter one, or put one character in a position of power, or have one character attempt to control the situation through intimidation or manipulation of the other character(s)–whether or not they succeed.
Explore the imbalances that would naturally crop up, as well as how the characters would react–accepting the imbalance, resisting it, operating in complete ignorance of it, or even pretending not to notice while they resist it subtly and maintain control of the situation and/or themselves. There are a lot of fun dynamics to play with, with this one.
Now I want to hear from you! Which of these exercises interests you most? Which sounds the most difficult?
Want to give your character voices an extra boost? Don’t forget to grab the character voice questions!