The Rules For Exercise

1. Sit with your eyes closed until you can see these two people standing in front of their house. See where they're standing in relation to each other (near? far?), how they hold their bodies, the expressions on their faces when they surprise each other on the walk.

2. Remember that one of them has something to hide and the other has something to tell. You have to know what these two things are before you begin. The two bits of business can be anything you like.

3. Remember that one character is going to avoid telling the truth for what seems to him (or her) to be a logical reason (and it may be benign or malignant), and the other may have a hard time saying what he or she has to say.

Holly Lisle

4. When you can see your two people, and when you can hear their voices, write for ten minutes. Do not use any words outside of quotes at all. This includes even 'he said' or 'she said.' Just let their voices come through. (Don't include their thoughts, either. You'll know what they're thinking - just don't write it down.)

5. Write the words as they say them - don't correct their grammar for them, or go back to change anything you have written. Don't cross out anything, don't erase anything - just let it all ride and force them to deal with the consequences.

6. Do not allow them to call each other by name.

When you have finished, sit back for a few minutes and cool off. Then read what you've written. You should notice at least a few of the following details if you have really heard your characters' voices. They'll interrupt each other, they'll change the subject, they'll change moods, they'll talk at cross-purposes, and/or the whole conversation will flow very fast. You should be able to tell just by what they say which is the man and which is the woman. You should be able to sense their lies or hesitations. Their moods and tones of voice should be apparent even though you have nothing outside of the naked dialogue to tell you how they say things. And you as the reader should have a few guesses about what they're hiding (though if you as the reader can't tell for sure, that's better than if you can.)

A few things you should not expect. This will not be finished dialogue. It will not be ready to go into a story or book. It will have places in it that stink, that are clumsy and awkward, that don't sound real. That's okay. This is just first draft.

I strongly suggest that you do Exercise #1 before continuing, but once your conversation is on paper, if you would like to see how my take on this exercise turned out, take a look at the sidebar. (See Exercise #1, at the end of this chapter.)

Here are a few recommendations about writing convincing dialogue. None of them are cast in stone, but until you're comfortable enough with the rules to know how to break them, you'll work better if you keep them in mind.

RULES FOR BETTER dialogue Avoid phonetic spelling.

Dialogue of the following sort - "Ah reckon ah don' haff ta go dowan tuh th' rivuh tuhday, 'cawse we gots awl th' feeush we a-gonna need" - gives the reader a headache and makes you look like a moron. With dialect, less is definitely more. "I reckon I don't have t' go down t' the river today, 'cause we got all the fish we gonna need," is much more readable and still suggests a particular character.

Avoid goofy tags.

"Really?" he ejaculated, or, "My God!" she blustered don't do much for your credibility. If you have to tag your dialogue, use he said or she said. They're essentially invisible, if not overused. Frankly, most of the time you don't even need that. Your dialogue, if you've been true to it, will speak for itself. Additionally, I don't object to the occasional he muttered or she whispered. I do always check in those sentences where someone hisses to make sure there was an "S" somewhere in the sentence he supposedly hissed. You just try hissing a sentence that doesn't contain "S"s.

Keep to the conflict.

If there is no conflict for the two characters in a piece of dialogue, then the dialogue has no place in your story. The conflict can be internal (he's lying to her, she doesn't like him) or external (a wall of water is sweeping down on the two of them, someone has stolen her purse or their car). But it has to be there. Dialogue illuminates character faster than any amount of exposition, but only if you give your characters something interesting to talk about, and something that moves your story forward. And that means conflict.

Don't let characters "speechify."

What worked in a Shakespeare monologue does not work in a dialogue between two people. Fictional dialogue is about give and take, meant to sound realistic but sharpened by the fact that each character needs something, and by the fact that their needs do not mesh. You won't get two-page speeches if you remember this.

Remember that people breathe while speaking.

Read your dialogue out loud, in your normal, conversational tone of voice. If you run out of air part of the way through a sentence, rework it. Add punctuation, break it up, rip out the flowery stuff.

Avoid "talking heads."

Have characters do something while they speak.

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