When I was in high school and college, I was involved in theatre. I was never pretty enough to be one of the leads. Not ugly, mind you, but not pretty, either. Plus I was quite shy. I did a lot of stage work, which my busy hands loved, but often got a bit part in the plays as well. Perhaps because I spent so much time behind the scenes, my biggest dream in high school was to write a play — a grand play, a play to be remembered. That dream has not been realized yet. But plays have mostly to do with dialogue. (Oh, okay, the stage hands have a lot to do with “setting the stage,” if you will–providing appropriate props, costumes, and sets. But let’s stick to the actor dialogue for now.)
For me, writing dialogue has never been a problem. There were the plays. But also, as a kid lying in bed at the dark of night, I used to have dialogues with people who weren’t there. You know. Coming up with that better comeback than I had during the day. Or imagining a conversation between a boy I liked and me.
One of the techniques I use today for dialogue:
Picture the face of your character. This could be done in your mind, or with a photo or magazine (what are those?) picture or an actual small figure. Decades ago, we used to play D&D, so I have over one hundred metal characters to pick from. You could also use stuffed animals. Think of the distinct characters in Winnie the Pooh. I have also pictured my characters as different animal with their traits. The large and strong, but silent and loyal elephant. The sneaky, gang-like dingo. The sparrow who is many, and argue like crazy.
Picture your characters and then put them together at a party, or going on a quest, going to algebra class together when the fire alarm goes off, etc. Even if your own story doesn’t have a scene like this. You can get to know who they are better in other situations. What are their reactions to events, to each other? What do they say?
I’ve also been known to talk into my iPhone. I put a space between the dialogue lines to distinguish the different characters, or adding the person’s name who’s being spoken to. I later cut and paste it into my story and add all the other stuff, like grammar and punctuation, like tag lines, like emotional reactions, like a view of the setting to keep the characters grounded. I also have carried a notebook and pen as I walk the house, physically writing out the dialogue or scenes. It’s that eye-hand movement and charges up to the brain thing.
Whatever technique you use, make your characters distinct.
Off to play with some D&D figures.