Writing Exercise #5: Dialogue

WRITING_EXERCISE2

This is part of a series of exercises aimed to improve specific aspects of your writing.

Dialogue is difficult for writers for many reasons. It needs to be dramatic, have a flow, be natural-sounding, and it needs to be a true conversation.

Very often we get one character who has an agenda dictated by the writer. That character is there to say something and the other character is to be a sounding board. The secondary character jumps in with a few affirmations and exactly the right questions to prompt whatever important tidbit the hero needs to express, but that second character isn’t really an active participant in the dialogue. That character could have easily been scrubbed out and the main character could have said all the same things in an internal monologue.

To make great dialogue, you need to write from both character perspectives. Both characters need an agenda and, for the sake of good drama, it’s best if those agendas contradict.

The exercise:

Write a dialogue where one character’s agenda (a statement/question/point/concern that must be addressed) is made clear, but the second character is merely a passive participant in the conversation.

Then edit the dialogue to give the secondary character an agenda which is given equal time, and ideally contrasts with the primary character’s agenda. Don’t just make it an argument. Think about motivation and feelings and what both person wants for a conclusion.

Background:

This will add to my current WIP being written for these exercises. This new scene has Barro, (our MC and cook at the lord’s castle), and Traive, (the son of Lord Findel). The village was recently attacked, killing most of its residents and Traive’s parents. He is now lord of the castle and village. *For the full version, go to the newest draft on the WIP page.*

Example  (wrong way):

“Lord Findel,” I said, pushing open the heavy door to Traive’s bedroom.

“What?” he whimpered.

“Your staff wishes to make the trek to Mashta so that we may seek aid, as you suggested at dinner, sir.”

“Good. Send that one with the big mouth, and another to keep him in line. The rest of you can begin the repairs.”

“Sir, it isn’t safe here.”

Traive turned to me, scowling. “Don’t you think I know that? It’s why we must rebuild, and do so quickly.”

“Sir, we are not bricklayers or stonemasons. Our best efforts would give poor result, and this castle took years to erect. We don’t know when the next attack may come.” I knelt to him and put a hand out, only to pull it back. “We cannot protect you here, sir.”

“You want us all to leave for Mashta.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And me as well?”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Very well. Pack my things for me, and get me more wine.”

As you can see, our MC’s agenda is clear. He wants everyone to leave town and, though Traive gives some resistance, Barro is ultimately successful in his plea.

Example  (right way):

Now let’s give Traive his own agenda. Here is dealing with the death of his parents, and he also squashes Barro’s plans.

“Lord Findel,” I said, pushing open the heavy door to Traive’s bedroom.

“What?” he whimpered.

“Your staff wishes to make the trek to Mashta so that we may seek aid, as you suggested at dinner, sir.”

“Good. Send that one with the big mouth, and another to keep him in line. The rest of you can begin the repairs.”

“Sir, it isn’t safe here.”

Traive turned to me, scowling. “Don’t you think I know that? It’s why we must rebuild, and do so quickly.”

“Sir, we are not bricklayers or stonemasons. Our best efforts would give poor result, and this castle took years to erect. We don’t know when the next attack may come.” I knelt to him and put a hand out, only to pull it back. “We cannot protect you here, sir.”

Traive’s eyes drifted. The next room over belonged to Lady Findel, Traive’s mother. The canopy over her grand bed had divided the falling roof around the room. Small stone fragments were strewn across the neatly-made bed covers, leaving it almost wholly untouched.

“As far as I know,” said Traive, “they haven’t slept in the same room for years. Years, Barro. They fought all the time. They were civil enough at meals and around me, but damn near hated one another. Had I moved on and left the castle, I think Father may have murdered her.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe Mother would have murdered him first. She was very clever.

“All that arguing. All his lying and cheating, all the squabbles over money. All the time creating lives apart, and so she slept safely in her own bed every night, for years. But on this one night, he must have done something kind. Maybe they smiled at each other in just the right way. Maybe it was an unintended touch that set them right. Maybe he was finally trying to make amends and maybe she remembered why she loved him to begin with. On this night, they were together again, sleeping in his bed, holding each other like they used to, crushed together in a final embrace.”

“I’m sorry.” I took his shoulder and Traive turned back, tears in his eyes. “This village has lost too many of its people already.”

“You want us all to leave for Mashta.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And me as well?”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“My father was a bastard most of his days, and in one act of kindness he gets my mother killed. No Barro, we’re not going anywhere.”

“If we stay behind and that thing returns, sir, it will kill us all.”

“This is Findel Castle, and as long as a Findel remains in its keep, we will defend it.”

“Traive.”

Traive’s eyebrow raised at the use of his name.

“A lord is only as powerful as the people who support him.”

“Are you challenging my rule?”

I shook my head. “We were friends long ago, long before you discarded our friendship, long before we settled into our rightful places. You were always cunning and indulgent, but there used to be a kindness within. You used to care. Do what you see fit, but I ask you: If everyone you rule is dead, who are you the lord of?”

Traive snorted and walked away. He cleared his mother’s vanity, carefully placing her hair brush and powders to the edge before taking a seat. The stool wobbled beneath him.

“Bring me parchment and ink. I will write a formal request to Lord Tigren. He should be able to spare thirty men.”

“Yes, Lord Findel.”

“And Barro. Bring more wine and a proper glass. I can’t be seen drinking from a tankard like tavern folk.”

Again, this is the dialogue stripped of some detail. For the full scene, read the latest draft of my WIP.

Conclusion:

I hope this helps you see how you can expand on your dialogue. While the role of the ‘straight man’ works well in comedy, it is boring and questionable for drama. Every character needs substance and feelings. Don’t write anyone that just fades into the background. Your readers will forget them, and no part of your writing should be forgettable.

All the best to you. Happy writing. Come back for more exercises, and please Subscribe and follow.

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