At the end of December, I submitted a story to the open call for Zombies Need Brains’ new anthology, The Death of all Things. It is the best thing that I’ve written so far, so I’m hopeful that it will see print. Of course, the numbers are against me, but lets not focus on that.
The story was basically a conversation with Death that doesn’t go quite the way you would imagine. Being an extended conversation, the story was very dialog heavy. I like writing dialog, but if you’re anything like me, when you have to write a lot of it you get bogged down trying to keep up with all the he-said-she-saids and the descriptions while you try to keep the conversation flowing.
I get so frustrated when I write dialog heavy pieces. As I write, I realize I’m focusing so much on either what they said, or what they were doing, that the other suffers. When I catch myself, I switch focus to the other, and by the time I get to the end, the whole thing is a hot mess. Then the rewriting is atrocious because half the time I don’t even know what they’re talking about any more, and the editing feels like trying to untangle fishing wire, and is only about half as fun.
It’s enough to make me want to give up on the stories like this before I even start, or cut way back on the amount of dialog that I use. Both would be a bad idea. A lot of characterization happens during dialog, and not writing something because it’s hard doesn’t help you grow as a writer. So I decided to try something new.
I started with the plan. I’m a hardcore planner, so that’s standard for me. I’ve got a plans that are several thousand words long for stories and series I won’t write for years. You pantsers give me so much anxiety, man.
But I digress.
Once I had the basic gist of what was going on, and what they needed to say to each other, I sat down and wrote all the dialog. And just the dialog. See, ever since I was a kid, I’ve had mock conversations in my head. Conversations with celebrities I’m fans of, that certain someone I was into at school, or just talks I knew I was going to have to have and all the possible ways that it could go. Yeah, yeah, I know what that says about my social skills, but y’all know you did it too. My idea was to take all my experience doing that and apply it to my writing.
So like I said, I wrote all the dialog first, adding in the first letter of the name after their part so I could keep straight who was talking. And it worked absolutely perfectly. The back and forth between the characters flowed like water downhill, and I was suddenly finding that my fingers couldn’t keep up with my brain. It turns out that I didn’t need those indicators of who was talking too, because their individual characters shone through so brightly that it was obvious. They surprised me, too. Giving my characters that much rein to talk to me, they changed the story in ways I wouldn’t have thought of, and they made it so much better. They literally took me places in the story that I never saw coming.
Then when I was finished, it was so much easier to fill in the rest of the story. When I read through it again, everything played out in my head like I was watching a movie. And the absolute best thing about the whole process is that I had a lot more fun writing it this way, and that is enough to make it all worthwhile for me.
Until someone tells me that I’m not original and much better writers than me have been doing this for years, I’ve been calling this process Scripting. Because that’s basically what you’re doing. Writing the script for the characters so that they can show you what they’re doing while they’re talking. I’ve been using this technique in my other works since I finished the original story, and it’s been working just as well.
Like all of us, I take my craft seriously. I also fully intend to make writing my career, so I push myself hard. Finding a technique that makes me more productive as well as making me enjoy the work more is a Godsend.
So if you are struggling with you dialog, or to hit word count, give this technique a try and tell us about it in the comments. I’d love to know if it works as well for others as it did for me.