Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Day 24 Prompt: What’s Said and Unsaid

Jo and Laurie have a conversation.

Powerful dialogue. It’s one of the most important craft tools in the writerly toolkit. Yet writers are often stymied when confronted with the task of writing good dialogue, so they simply leave it out. Dialogue can be direct or summarized, but the best, most potent, revelatory, tension-filled dialogue ought to be given directly. Why deny your reader the pleasure?

Screenwriter Maggie Sulc, in this article, advises to take our cues from actors when writing dialogue, to examine the character’s desire:

“Your language can be poetic and lyrical or blunt and straightforward, but if there isn’t a clear desire behind it, then there’s no reason for it to be spoken and, therefore, it shouldn’t be dialogue.”

Today I want you to write a conversation that features underlying or overt tension. Perhaps like Jo and Laurie in Little Women your characters want different things. Or one wants something the other can not or will not give to them. You can do anything you want with this, but I want all the window dressing to be pared down.

Focus on ACTION and DIALOGUE. And make every word sing. 

Leave stuff out. Often the most telling aspects of dialogue are what the characters are NOT saying.

Don’t make this a ping pong match. In real life, people don’t always answer questions. Real dialogue is full of unfinished sentences, of non-sequiturs and detours.

Make your characters sound different. This is very important. And a great way to characterize. Does one speak in full sentences while the other murmurs fragments? Does one of your people have some sort of vocal tic?

And how do they move about? Use body language to its fullest advantage.

Fill it up with subtext, undercurrents of emotion. What do these people want that has gone unspoken?

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