Great dialog is hard to write. No one wants to read dull words, even if they echo true-to-life exchanges, like:
“How are you?”
“I’m well, how are you?”
Cue reader: skim… So, the better approach hit me this morning while I brushed my teeth. (Inspiration hits at the funnies times, doesn’t it?) It’s a great method that takes some practice, but works well if you, as the writer, can be objective. Ready?
Have you ever played Uno by yourself?
Our family of six used to sit around and play Uno when I was growing up. Such a fun, simple game. Of course, the older we got, the more strategies we learned. Sometimes, my sister and I would play alone, just the two of us. Our turn rolled around a lot faster and those “Skip” and “Reverse” cards meant something brand new: more turns!
But there were times when my siblings were busy. At those times, I’d play alone. I’ve done that with other card games too. Have you? You sit there, deal up two hands, pick up one and get the cards into place. Call this Player A. You choose the blue #7 and play it, strategizing what you’ll do next turn. You’ve got a plan. Player A is going to win!
Next, it’s Player B’s turn. You put down your handful of cards and pick up Player B’s stack. Order them. Plan your attack. And if you’re objective, you don’t concern yourself with what Player A is “holding.” You play to win. Then, Player B’s turn over, you grab for Player A’s hand and make specific choices given what Player A is holding.
Let’s apply this to dialog. When your characters are talking, especially if they’re arguing, get into each of their heads. Take turns, like with playing cards. Have a goal for each (“I want to win!”), a motivation (“Winning makes me feel good!”), and a plan (“This strategy will work.”). Act as if that character is the only winner in the conversation/argument. This speaker is ready to take on this conversation. Do the same with the other character.
Suddenly, your dialog comes alive with subtext (what the characters aren’t saying) and the characters’ strengths shine (no passive protags here). Readers will stay engaged in the pages of dialog, no risk of them skimming ahead.
Dialog should move the story along, provide reveals, engage readers. Don’t hold back. If the story calls for it, don’t be afraid to let your characters argue. Make each “Player” play to win. Be in that character’s head fully while considering how they’d respond. Be as objective as possible.
Using this practice will help fire up your characters’ exchanges. Try it. And write on!