3 Steps To Writing Amazing Dialogues

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

I like to see how things are done behind the scenes, so I figured maybe you guys would, too. Here, I set aside one of my early drafts of The Water Castle to show how I evolve my patented dialogs.

(So many people find writing good dialogs to be difficult, so we have discussed it before, here, here and here.)

My characters tend to talk a lot, but they – like yours – have to do things during the conversation or it gets dull fast.

So I laid out the process in a little different manner this time.

First, I think up what these people need to convey in the scene.

Then I try to have each person’s speeches be quick, pithy, and irreverent. Sarcastic. Not mean, because they love each other, but instilled with the barbs that only friends and family can trade.

That's a lot of steps!
That’s a lot of steps!

Second, I add the beats

– the little actions people do while talking, like scratch their head when they’re confused – to make the scene seem real.

THEN it gets edited.

So this is the unedited version. When I reread it, I’ll tweak and trim and hope it comes together, then my amazing critique partners will make suggestions to tighten it even more.

And when humor is required, my characters need to say something VERY unexpected, often very un-PC, and usually very surprising to the other character – and the other character needs to react like it was a surprise, too.

Okay, enough setup. Here goes.

PART ONE: JUST THE WORDS

When I do this, I just bang it out like a script or a play. This is big part of your voice, how you’d say something.

Gina took the passenger seat as Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

“Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up. You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God!  No.”

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good. How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

“She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.”

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.”

“I guess so. She…”

“She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things.”

“Like everything. I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

“Him, who? Your dad?”

“Yeah. Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“She made decisions she had to make.”

“She made bad ones.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“Sounds like somebody else I know.”

“All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after Steve passed away. Your mom did what she had to do for you and your little brother. He was a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

“Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point. You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the sports car’s glistening yellow exterior as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to. Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know. Mom would get mad.”

“Good thing she’s not here. The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the Onstar. So let’s see. Send. Let’s go check.”

The walked to the car.

“Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks. There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.

“I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

I can see this coming together. Maybe.
I can see this coming together. Maybe.

PART TWO: JUST THE BEATS

A list of some things you do when you get in a car to go to the airport.

Get in car

Adjust seat belt

Touch up makeup

Fix hair

Pick at or check your teeth

Start ignition

Start driving

Look in mirror

Look at passenger

Notice other cars

Take the exit into the airport

Pull up to the curb

Get out the bags

Hugs and kisses

Go inside

Drivers pull away from the curb

Take the exit on the interstate

Merge into traffic

Make a few turns

Pull onto your street

Next, after dropping off the traveler

You get in car

Maybe you start the engine

You put the car in drive

You slowly pull on the street

You get some instructions on how to keep the car the proper lane, with a new driver

You speed up or slow down

Usually more issues on keeping car centered, with a new driver

Then making a turn

Turning onto a side street

Speed up

Hold onto dashboard

Grip wheel

Yell at each other

Well, maybe that last one...
It’s easy – just be yourself.

PART THREE: COMBINE AND STIR

Blend. It’s not math, it’s jazz. Put in what feels right from the list and add whatever else comes to mind. Visualize what the people are doing and try to describe it. The list is really a prompt, not something to use verbatim. Stuff for here and there, that you might add. Now it should read more like a story.

Gina took the passenger seat as Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

Gina buckled her seat belt. “Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up.” Sam put the car into drive and pulled away from the curb. “You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God! No.”

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good.” She merged the vehicle into the flow of the airport traffic. “How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

Gina stared out the window. Somewhere behind the office buildings and housing developments, the sun dipped into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sending brilliant orange and yellow reflections onto the clouds. “She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.”

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.”

“I guess so. She…”

Sam glanced at Gina. “She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things?”

Gina threw her hands in the air. “Like everything.” She sighed. “I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

Sam looked for her exit. “Him, who? Your dad?”

“Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“Hey, your mom made decisions that she had to make.”

Gina continued watching the scenery go by. The houses got smaller and older as they went. “She made bad ones.”

Sam made a turn. “I… I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“That sounds like somebody else I know.”

Gina propped her elbow on the door, resting her chin in her palm. “All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after… your dad passed. Nikki did what she had to do for you and your little brother. He was just a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

Sam nodded. “Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point.” Sam pulled over. “You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the glistening yellow exterior of a sports car as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to.” Sam sat back, folding her arms. “Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know.” Gina’s voice fell to a whisper. “Mom would get mad.”

Sam chuckled. “Good thing she’s not here.” She plucked her phone from her purse. “The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the OnStar. So let’s see.” She pressed a button. “Okay. Let’s go check.”

They walked to the Corvette. Gina stared at it in amazement. “Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks.” Sam stared at the doors, waiting. A short, slightly rumbly noise emanated from the car, along with a flash of the tail lights. She smiled. “There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Sam opened the passenger door. “Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.”

Gina opened the driver’s door. “I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

Okay, so now you can read the completed draft and see where it can be cut or tightened.

 

You got this!
You got this!

Remember, I don’t really make a list per se; I do lay out the speech and then go back and add the linear actions that have to happen (you have to get to the airport before you take your suitcase out of the car), but stuff life resting your head on your palm, that needs to come from the feel of the scene. Then I add placeholder beats – you’ll see quite a few sighs – to remind me to have an action there, just not necessarily that action. Or that action conveyed differently.

 

That’s it. The final draft will be completed later, but I wanted to show one method for writing amazing dialogues! Hope it helps!

 

What kinds of methods do YOU use to show good dialogs?

.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Check out his other works HERE.

29 thoughts on “3 Steps To Writing Amazing Dialogues

  1. This is really helpful. When I started writing dialog I used ‘she said’ ‘Dan said’ etc. but it can sound very dull. Thanks to some helpful advice (some from you I think?) I’ve tried to add more action or beats as you call it. It does make it far more interesting to read and you convey the action while they talk.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Eric, you make an excellent point. Those dialog tags (he said, she said, they exclaimed) were all over my early works. Friends helped me learn how to get past that. Then they said to add beats. I had to write and ask what the heck “beats” were! Then they started this POV stuff. What???

      Other author friends also went to great lengths to point out tense and POV issues. Some worked with me on romantic scenes. Having great people help you makes such a big difference.

      The MAIN thing I took away from dialog tags was what another author said: that they can make the reading DULL. That is the cardinal sin. I get seriously motivated to avoid that stuff, and you’ve nailed it. Dull is death. SEEING the dull is a HUGE step forward! And that’s very hard to do in your own work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love insights as to how successful authors manage this kind of thing. Thanks for sharing!
    Just like Eric said, I find that these little action beats come so much more naturally since I’ve removed my dialogue tags. At first it’s tough ground to navigate, but it comes easier with practise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a step in the process and it makes a word of difference, but like a lot of things, when you can finally see it, you can learn to work around it, and from then on it’s a non-issue.

      Having your critique partners write to say “Your writing has improved so much” when fans loved it already, that’s huge.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kristina. I try.

      This method gets the scene to 80% or 90% of where it needs to be, then the author can add what it needs before letting their critique partners “have a go” at it. Ultimately it may change, but this helps fix what I see many authors struggle with (and complain about), that their dialog is clunky and not engaging. I think they need a better outline for it, and this does that. From there, each unique writer’s voice will shine through and be distinct in the characters.

      Meanwhile, I read you “How to host a Facebook launch party.” Brilliant!! I need to do that. I may have to just steal your whole blog post or hire you to do mine! Great stuff!

      http://kristinastanley.com/2015/08/12/tips-for-hosting-a-facebook-launch-party/#comment-14825

      For my readers who need this – which is probably all of them. I know I do!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, this has made me feel better about my writing (what I’ve done of it!) I always think it’s dialogue heavy, yet it has a similar balance (I think /hope) to what you’ve written. Yet as a teacher, we always try to deter dialogue in stories, as kids seem to go for that and nothing else – I guess I just shouldn’t look at my own writing through teacher eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haylee, first of all – thank you.

      Yeah, close your teacher eyes when you are writing and vice versa. Write drunk, you know? Go crazy and make up words and THEN sit down later and see what you meant. (Meanwhile, my books would probably be ALL dialog if I’m not careful. So it works the other way, too.)

      One good solution is to join a critique group and not tell them you are a teacher, just let them view you as a writer. It’s eye-opening.

      Liked by 1 person

    • THANK YOU, lucky! What a nice thing to say. You made me blush – virtually. An e-blush, if you will.

      I should ask all you guys to come back and post examples of your new improved dialogs!!! Except that the replies would come to a halt because writer types be shy…

      Like

  4. This was a fascinating process of mixing dialogue, character development and scenery, Dan. I practice once in awhile writing different ways but you are definitely professional and have honed your craft into a finished package. Thanks for taking us through these steps. Smiles, Robin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Robin! I sure try. I’d say this little exercise walks new authors through some basic stuff that will get them a lot closer to where they want to be, and then with a little help from friends they’ll go the rest of the way. It’s just one method, not the only method. Glad you found it helpful!

      Like

  5. I love having a lot of dialogue in my books but as I’m only new to all of this, I always wonder if I’m doing it right and what the best way to do it is. Thanks for the advice and it gives me a good idea as to how to clean up my dialogue a bit. I realise that in my first book I included a lot of he says, she says and have really worked hard to get around it in my second one. Am still editing! Thanks for a great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, and if you read Poggibonsi (and one day soon you’ll get your chance, I promise), I take a scene between two characters talking on the phone, add one set of actions onto it, and then have ANOTHER character doing hilarious, unrelated stuff behind the MC, which is like its own little scene. It cracks me up, but it’s a great way to really get readers into several characters at once.

    I may have to post a piece of that scene to show it. It’s one of my favorite scenes from that book.

    Like

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