Writing Exercise: Expanding on Dialogue

Image courtesy of jk1991 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The most common mistake I run across while editing is something I call “Screenplay”, where the writer goes into dialogue-only mode – forgetting to add location cues, speaker indications, action, exposition, and other narrative. Other people call it “Talking Heads”, and it is about as exciting as watching stick puppet talk without the puppeteer moving the sticks.

Now, when you are writing the first draft, you may find only dialogue occurs. This is fine, spew the information in your head on the page. You can’t fix it until it is written.

For the flash Grass, which came in just over 2,000 words, the initial exchange was 100% dialogue. The alien visiting my head asked “Why do you dedicate so much land to non-food?” while I was mowing the lawn, and the conversation devolved from there. After getting stung by a yellow jacket, I retreated indoors and decided to type out the exchange. Initially I tried to add some narrative while typing up, but nothing wanted to happen. I knew the exchange was between a human and an alien ambassador and nothing else. Two hundred words vomited from my fingers onto the page in 28 lines of dialogue. That was it.

Then the hard part. Adding in the narrative. Yes, I could have left it in screenplay or movie script format – that is the point of flashes after all, getting things out quickly -, but I wanted to know more. The end result was ten times as long as the initial product, and I did not add a single line of dialogue. If anything the dialogue shrunk a little when I modified the alien’s vocabulary – just a word here and there. The dialogue is substantially unchanged from the initial voices-in-my-head moment while mowing.

Since you are going to write dialogue sans any narrative (and, believe me, you are going to write dialogue sans any narrative) you should practice adding narrative to dialogue. Preferably before you send your manuscript off to a content editor.

WRITING EXERCISE: Either take dialogue already written in play format or create five to ten simple lines of your own without thinking of the scenario at all. You can find dialogue online by searching “screenplay examples” and clicking on images. An example of five simple lines of dialogue is “Hello” “Hello, how are you doing today?” “You know.” “Yep.” “Any suggestions on how to get the red out?”.

If you are using previously created dialogue ignore who the speakers are. Now that you have some generic dialogue, pick a genre and two characters: Fantasy with an elf and orc; science fiction with a spaceship captain and crew member; a mystery with the murderer and investigator talking, anything you want. Add the narrative to your dialogue. It should at least double the length of the dialogue. 

Here is a secret, just between you and me, dear writers. You want to increase your word count for a document, go find those “talking head” areas in your Work-In-Progress and flesh them out. You can even try that right now as a second writing exercise for today if you want.


Title: Red Cop

“Hello,” echoed through the empty store.

Jazz bit back a curse from popping her head against the counter top when she tried to stand. Stuffing bags underneath the cash register in preparations for next week’s sales had hid her from view. Standing, rubbing her head, she put on her best customer service smile and said, “Hello, how are you doing today?” before focusing on the customer. Correction, police officer. Who did not look happy at all; his uniform was a wreck. Another one stood in the open doorway of her little mall shop, her uniform pristine.

“You know.” He growled before glancing over at his female partner, who nodded and stepped outside.

Remaining overtly perky while reviewing her recent activities for any slipup which might have brought the officer to this particular store, Jazz replied, “Yep.

“Any suggestions on how to get the red out?” the officer asked, moving his right hand over his clothing from shoulder to waist in hovering indication.

Walking around the counter to lead him to the appropriate cleaning supplies, Jazz, sometimes known as the supervillian Prankster, smiled wide while no one was looking. (initial dialogue 19 words – final result 188 words.)