Writerly Reads: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript by James Scott Bell – Part 1

dazzling dialogueI have a handful of books in my writer’s library and am making an effort to read them. Here are notes on this book by James Scott Bell. It is concise, clear, relevant and contains numerous suggested exercises. This post contains notes on Chapters 1 through 6. I will add notes for Chapter 7 in a separate post.

(I apologize for the lack of outline formatting. I did format as I took notes, but the saved post is all lined up along the left margin.)

Chapter 1 The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript
the “character alone thinking” opening
bloated expository dialogue
Dialogue is the fastest way to assess the skill of a writer.”

Chapter 2 What Dialogue Is …And Isn’t
Dialogue must always have a purpose
What Dialogue Is
– it is a compression and extension of action;
– it comes from energy, not inertia;
– it broadens the scope of action;
– it organizes and extends what people do;
– it intensifies the action
– The first secret of dazzling dialogue – give every character an agenda
– Put those agendas in opposition
– Be clear on each character’s agenda in each scene.
– Write down what each character in the scene wants.
What Dialogue Isn’t
– It isn’t real life speech – it is stylized speech
– It does not meander
– It is not the information superhighway

Chapter 3 Story Weaving: The True Art of Dialogue
Dialogue in fiction has five functions
1. Reveal story information
– two ways to deliver info –> narrative & dialogue
– the reader must never catch you using dialogue for exposition
– don’t put into dialogue anything both characters already know
– how much exposition is needed? Keep this in mind:  Act first, explain
. create mystery.
– hide exposition within confrontation
– supplement dialogue with actions and inner thoughts
– dole out info with breaks, interruptions and actions
– if a character makes a speech, make sure it is interesting
2. Reveal character
– considerations
a. Vocabulary – educational background, aspirations
b. Syntax – show character is from somewhere else, speak in a
heightened way
c. Regionalisms – e.g. supper
d. Peer Groups – pet phrases, jargon, add to authenticity
3. Set the tone
– cumulative effect of dialogue; be intentional
4. Set the scene
– characters’ reactions to surroundings tells about location and person
– dynamics of a scene can be set up
5. Reveal the theme
– readers don’t want a lecture or a sermon, they want a story
– place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational
moment ( a tense    exchange hides what you are doing)

Chapter 4 Training for Dialogue
Train your ear for dialogue
a. The Voice Journal
exercise: free-form document, stream of consciousness, in the
character’s own voice; prompt them with questions; each character
should have a distinct speech pattern; don’t try to do it all in one sitting;
add, analyze, sharpen
b. Out Loud
exercise: read your dialogue; have a computer read your dialogue; will
sharpen your ear   for dialogue
c. Convert Movie Scripts
exercise: find a script (try http://www.imsdb.com) and convert it to narrative
d. Improvisation
exercise: take an improv class
exercise: watch TV with the sound off and voice the characters
exercise: randomly select a character (list at end of post) and for 5
minutes, become that  character – comment on life, the universe and
e. Just Practice
exercise: set up scenes with two random characters who are as different
as possible

Chapter 5 Increasing Conflict and Tension in Dialogue
– amp up your conflict and tension
– avoid “sitting-down-for-coffee” scenes; people on the same wavelength is not gripping
a. Remember Those Agendas
– place characters in opposition; adds interest, tension
b. Get Into More Arguments
– mild disagreement to outright screaming matches
– if a scene is dragging, add an argument, even playful
c. Set Up Barriers
– inner or outer barriers
– intrusion of another character on a private conversation
punctuation: to indicate an interruption, use this punctuation:
quote –”
punctuation: when a character’s voice trails off, use ellipsis:
quote …”
– sprinkle interruptions into your dialogue
– interior barriers are usually for an emotional reason; one
character doesn’t want to talk about something; the other
character is unaware of the reason
exercise: take a scene in your own manuscript that doesn’t seem
strong and bump up the conflict with an annoying quirk, an
interruption, a scathing remark
d. The Fear Factor
– fear is a continuum from simple worry to terror
–  to reiterate:  agendas, arguments, barriers, and fear – all good for
dazzling dialogue

Chapter 6 Craft Secrets for Shaping Great Dialogue
– 11 best tools for writing dazzling dialogue
1. Orchestration
– a great cast of characters who differ from one another;
exercise: a. make a list of the cast of your novel & make a 2-line
description of each;
b. make sure the descriptions are sufficiently different from one another;
c. give each character a quirk & make them irritating to two other
d. write a few practice scenes pairing two random characters – this could
generate some actual plot ideas
2. Flip the Obvious
– if your character is saying the obvious, then flip it, say the opposite
exercise:  use a dialogue randomizer; randomly select a line of your
dialogue, randomly   replace it with line of dialogue from another novel
on your bookshelf; tweak it and make it work
3. Subtext
– what’s happening in a scene is more than what is seen
– you can weave subtext into dialogue because a.) you know more than
the reader and b.) one character knows things the other doesn’t
– Some possible subtext topics
=Past relationships
=Rich backstory
=Shocking experiences
= Vivid memories
= Fears
exercise: this is to brainstorm for subtext. use paper & pencil; write down
all major  characters’ name in a circle; draw a line from one character to
another and ask ‘what is their relationship?’ strangers?, past
connection?, do they both know?, neither knows?;  repeat this for all
characters. This will add plenty of subtext.
4. The Cheap Champagne Method
exercise: turn off the inner editor; pour dialogue onto the page, let it flow,
no punctuation, improvise, your characters will give you lines, plot twists,
conflict, even though you won’t use all of this, you’ll get things you can
5. Parent, Adult, Child
– we tend to relate to people by the roles we see each other in
– Parent – full authority figure
– Adult – objective, balanced, rational, analytical
– Child – emotional, irrational, selfish, whiny, trusting, innocent, tantrum-
throwing, pouting
– the roles can add conflict, if not, remember to add fear or barriers
exercise: figure out which role your characters will play before you write a
scene, figure out their natural points of conflict, find a reason for a
character to assume a different role    (e.g. adult not getting way,
becomes demanding parent)
– it’s natural for characters to switch roles
6. Curving the Language
– (Author mentions having written a booklet called “How to Write Comedy:
                 The Danny Simon Notes“)
– comedy is the hardest form of fiction there is
– Danny Simon had an exercise called Curving the Language
exercise: write out the lines as they come to you; later go back and find
some you can pump up
7. Off the Nose
– on-the-nose dialog is direct, unsurprising, expected response to what
was said; say something unexpected; side step
8. Compression
– unless a character has a reason to run off at the mouth, keep the
dialogue lean; cut out fluff words
exercise: take one of your dialogue scenes and try cutting it to the bone;
compare to the original; incorporate the cuts that work
9. Don’t Forget About Silence
– silence can show reaction, can express feelings, emotion
10. Controlling Pace Through Dialogue
– if you want to slow down the pace of your story, increase the description
between dialogue and decrease the white space on the page
– if you want to increase the pace, decrease description and increase white
– fast uses subtext, slow goes deeper than subtext, enlarges the inner life
of the character
11. Gems and Spice
– sometimes you want to spice up a scene, make the dialogue sparkle,
moves the reader  emotionally or adds pleasure

Chapter 7 Top 10 Dialogue Issues
This chapter is meant to be used as a reference, not read word for word (will include notes on this in a separate post)
Issue #1 Punctuation
Issue #2 Attributions, Adverbs, Action Tags
Issue #3 Dialects
Issue #4 Backstory
Issue #5 Inner Dialogue
Issue #6 Experimental
Issue #7 Cursing
Issue #8 Thematic Dialogue
Issue #9 Comic Relief
Issue #10 Period Dialogue

Chapter 8 Author’s Note
If you appreciated this book, leave a rating on Amazon for the author.
Visit the author’s web site:  http://www.jamesscottbell.com – where you’ll find more writing advice,       books, Scrivener instruction and more
Bell also has an active blog:  http://killzoneblog.com/

28 Stock Characters (Chapter 4 exercise)
1. Absent-minded professor
2. Action hero
3. Alien invader
4. Bad boy
5. Boy next door
6. Girl next door
7. Cat lady
8. Dark lady (femme fatale)
9. Holmesian detective
10. Hardboiled detective
11. Elderly martial arts instructor
12. Farmer’s daughter
13. Gentle giant
14. Gentleman thief
15. Geek
16. Grande dame
17. Jock (athlete)
18. Mad scientist
19. Outlaw
20. School diva
21. Southern belle
22. Space pirate
23. Tomboy
24. Town bully
25. Town drunk
26. Tycoon
27. Wise old man
28. Zombie


For the most part, this blog is about reading and writing m/m romances, but there are a few personal reflections, some writerly information, and a bit of writing practice. Thank you for stopping by.

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Posted in book talk, Writerly Reads

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