Last night marked the final session of the novel-in-process workshop that I’ve been taking at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. During the 8-week course, we’ve read each other’s work and commented on what worked and what didn’t work. It was especially helpful to be able to talk to people and throw out ideas and get immediate feedback on it.
Last night we did a couple of exercises on writing dialogue. Dialogue can be tricky to write. If you try to make it too true-to-life, it sounds pretty stupid. Actually listen to what real people say: they repeat things a lot, they use “hmm” and “uh” and other interjections, and they mumble. They also don’t speak in complete sentences. That’s especially true when one person is speaking to someone he or she knows very well. For instance, I might ask my husband “Coffee?” I don’t say “Do you want some coffee?” The tone of my voice and the situation (being in the kitchen, or me heading into the kitchen from the living room) make the question easily understood. But if you try that in your writing it probably won’t work unless the reader is very clear on what is going on in the scene.
This week, I’m going to give you the same exercises that I did last night, but I’m changing the parameters a little bit. There are actually two sections to this exercise. In the first, you will write dialogue between two people. The situation is that they are having a disagreement on something, and one must convince the other. You need to do this by writing speech only. Don’t use narrative to tell the reader what is happening.
In the second part of the exercise, take what you’ve done in the first part and rewrite it so that you include description interspersed with the dialogue. Take the time to read over both sections when you’re done. What’s different? What works? What is awkward? Does the description add to or detract from the scene? How does it affect the pacing?
Here are some examples of dialogue only and dialogue with description. See how the description slows down the pacing, but adds to the scene:
“I want a divorce,” Emma said.
“You heard me. I’ve already gotten a lawyer. All you need to do is sign the papers.”
“But I don’t want a divorce,” said Leo. “I love you.”
“You’re never home. You won’t even notice that I’m gone,” said Emma.
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s that Martin, isn’t it?” demanded Leo.
“No, it isn’t,” said Emma. “It’s me. I want out. I want to travel.”
Dialogue and description:
“Leo, I want a divorce,” said Emma.
“What?” Leo turned from the dresser to face Emma. His face was slack.
“You heard me,” she said. She frowned and bit her lip.
Leo stared at her but was silent.
“I’ve already gotten a lawyer,” Emma continued.
“Yes. He’s already drawn up the papers. All you need to do is sign them.” Emma folded her arms across her chest and looked at the floor, the wall, anywhere but at Leo.
“But I don’t want a divorce,” Leo said, his voice rising.
“You’re never home,” said Emma. She met Leo’s glare, tilting her chin up. “You’ll never even realize that I’m not here.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is.” Emma looked away again. “I can’t go on like this, Leo.”