Dialogue Workshop

I got a question in my e-mail not too long ago on how to do dialogue. As far as I've ever been able to tell, writing good dialogue comes from being able to hear voices in your head that aren't there - which in times past has been enough to get you burned at the stake or drowned at a dunking post, and which currently, if you admit to it in the wrong company, can get you a quiet room with rubber walls and all the free Thorazine you can swallow.

Never let it be said that writing well is not without its risks.

That said, i need to tell you that dialogue in a story is NoT about two people talking to each other. That's what it is, but it isn't what it's about.


Dialogue is about demonstrating character through conflict, either internal or external.

Memorize that, because when you've memorized it, about half of your problems with dialogue will melt into oblivion. But dialogue is easier to do than to talk about doing, and if you have a block of it in front of you, you can see where you're going right and where you're going wrong.

Get out your trusty spiral-bound notebook and a smooth-writing pen with lots of ink. (I have a preference for Pilot Precise Rolling Ball pens because they flow smoothly across the page and never seem to hang up, and you know when you have enough ink. Some of the gel pens are nice, too, but they have a nasty habit of dying in mid-

sentence, and while writing dialogue, you don't want anything to break your flow.) Also have a timer nearby. The one on a stove or microwave will work better than a stopwatch or some other timer that doesn't have an alarm, because you will have a tendency to get sucked into this and write past your allotted time.

This workshop works better on paper first time through than it does on the computer. I'm going to set up a limited scenario for you, and I want you to follow through with it. But I want you to see the scenario in your head clearly. (This is essential to writing good dialogue. You have to know WHY the people who are talking to each other are talking.)

Keep in mind as you read through the scenario that you have to find out the following things from the dialogue in which the two characters will engage.

1) What does each character want?

2) How do their desires conflict?


A man and a woman who have been married for fifteen years meet on the sidewalk in their front yard as she is coming home and he is on his way out. The day is gray and blustery, with the smell of snow in the air and rapidly falling temperatures. She is dressed far too lightly for the weather. She was supposed to be home all day. He wasn't supposed to be home at all. One of them has to tell the other something important. The other one has to keep the first from finding out something important.

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