First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
– Ray Bradbury
The Writer’s Surprise Gift
Writer’s know when they are in the zone and the story flows. If you use an outline to hit the main beats of your story, you’ll know what you want to accomplish in the scene.
Your characters may be sitting on a park bench in the snow, digging a ditch as Nazi prisoners, chasing the bad guys, or any other scene you have imagined You begin a dialog between characters and all of a sudden they are saying things you hadn’t planned or considered.
Listen To The Characters
If you are into your story and know what makes your characters tick, when words start coming, listen. Your characters will add new dimension to the scene.
You already know to dispense with banalities–hello, it’s a great day, etc.–and get right to the conversation. Think of your dialog in the same way as the scene: start late, leave early.
Tweet: Think of your dialog in the same way as the scene: start late, leave early.
Dialogue that begins in media res (without preamble) is a strong way to begin a scene, drawing the reader in. Dialogue that ends early is a structured way to end a scene or chapter, often with a cliffhanger moment to keep the reader turning the page or, at the end, waiting for the next book in your series.
Add To The Story
As a storyteller, those unexpected words from a character can foreshadow a later moment in the story, add depth to both characters, complicate the plot, deepen the relationship within the story, and other story dimensions.
The benefit of having a rough outline is that as the dialog hints of story change you can make notes in the outline that further incorporate the discoveries as your characters speak. Those surprise moments from the characters often lead to other conversations later in the story.
In order for your characters to have conflict within their conversations, you need to know them inside and out. Know the backstory that is never mentioned that would prompt a character to think, respond, and say the words. Know how the two characters relate to each other with friendship, love, annoyance, hate, or unsuspecting naïveté.
The better you understand your characters, each one, the more surprising words will pop out unbidden. Then listen.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.