• My Bad First Draft Habit: Dialogue

    by  • February 8, 2016 • Writing • 0 Comments

    As I work on my current MS, I’ve learned one of my weaknesses: dialogue.

    I don’t mean that I consider myself bad at writing dialogue; actually, if I had to rank which parts of my writing make me feel most confident, I’d put it closer to the top of the list. No, far worse than that: I love writing dialogue not wisely but too well.

    It’s my knee-jerk scene reaction. Got two characters together in a room? Well, have them hang out and talk to each other. You know, as people do. Need to convey a plot point? It’s probably something they’d want to talk about. Not sure what happens next? Let’s chat!

    Like clockwork, my writing process starts off with scene after scene of dialogue. Inner dialogue, outer dialogue, it doesn’t matter as long as I can get my characters talking to someone, themselves included. Around the third or fourth such scene, the story runs out of momentum. And when I try to figure out where to go next… I realize the problem was actually way back in the first and/or second scene. Instead of dialogue, I need an action scene that does the same thing more dynamically.

    For example, sometimes my characters get angsty. My intuitive first draft of angsty scenes is almost always the character thinking about all the terrible things causing the angst.

    thought bubble with "wangst!" inside

    Artist’s interpretation. No, YOU spent precious minutes making this in MS Word.


    Then, when I reach the point later on where my engine stalls, I realize: duh. That scene where the character spent, like 1000 words rambling on about how she felt and why this situation is so awful and how she feels guilty about a mistake she made? She should actually be doing something.

    Instead of bemoaning how he feels like he owes his BFF a debt he can’t repay, I should show him actually trying (and failing) to repay said debt in a way that moves the plot along. Or, if he’s upset at how he can’t tell his crush how he feels, let’s see how he interacts with that crush in a scene where they’re both doing something important. His feelings should shine through his behaviour as well as his words. And I can twofer the scene by making something plotty happen at the same time.

    (See the pattern here, future writing self? PLOT. It’s what’s for dinner.)

    Similarly, I have a bad mystery-writing habit of having my characters tell each other all the necessary clue-type information in my first draft(s… don’t judge me). Instead, it makes the whole story much more compelling if I have them, y’know, go get the information by doing cool things.

    There was evidence found at the scene of the crime? Have them go find the evidence! Someone was being evasive? Have them confront the someone!

    To be fair, here’s where my pretend division between “scenes of dialogue” and “scenes of plot” falls apart: sometimes, the plot is people talking. But it’s never just people talking. There has to be tension between them, a clear sense of their conflicting motivations. And sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether I’ve nailed it or whether I’ve succeeded only in deluding myself that this dressed-up boring dialogue scene has magically become dynamic.

    It’s especially challenging to untangle when I’m trying to give a sense of characters’ reasoning. Planning something cool can be engaging and fraught with tension–but not when I let the story get away from me and “Character A planning their awesome heist” turns into “Character A thinking aloud for the author about where the plot can go from here.”

    (So far, my first draft is full of Character A… and B… and C all thinking aloud for the author. “Hmmm, but if we do X, then we’ll run into Y problem. So what can we do? Z? Not even on the table. We’ll have to think about it some more…”)

    But, hey, that’s okay–first drafts are supposed to be messy. It’s better that my characters should figure out where I’m going than I never manage it because I’m too scared of not writing something perfect first try.

    And figuring out good action scenes–scenes that move the story forward and fit organically with the rest of the plot–is tough. It’s easy to go overboard and be the writing equivalent of Michael Bay, exploding a plot point every now and then for no good reason except fear the audience is going to stop being entertained.

    I’ve struggled with this in every writing form, but working on plays really forces me to confront it. It’s easy to get carried away writing what characters are saying and leaving the hard part of what they’re doing to the actors. But you have to give the actors and directors something to work with, some way to give the piece life and prevent it from being static talking heads.

    It takes a while for me to figure out the right way to make something happen. I need to figure out what kind of action the story has earned.

    So as I write, I’m mindful that the reason the pacing feels so slow and draggy is probably because it is, and that’s okay. I’m writing dialogue because that’s how my brain works, and my future self will eventually figure out how to turn all of these scenes into plot and many of them into action.

    I just need to make sure she actually knuckles down and does it before deciding it’s time to share the story.


    I write SFF, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and I've been known to knock off a play here and there. I'm represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Stick around - who knows what might happen?


    Leave a Reply