by Annette Lyon
In the very first creative writing class I took, one assignment was to write a sitcom-length screenplay.
We learned about basic screenplay formatting and all that, but for me (an aspiring novelist), the most powerful thing I learned from that unit was how to write powerful dialog.
Screenplays by their nature are pretty much nothing but dialog. You're allowed to say where and when the scene is taking place (Interior, Day, Sherrie's kitchen) and maybe a few camera instructions (pan right).
But for the most part, the script relies on spoken words. Usually, the writer isn't allowed to even put in directions for the actor, because they like to decide how to act and deliver their own lines, thank-you-very-much.
Since you can't add actions (he folded his arms and stomped his foot), internal monologue (she wondered what he meant by that), or even adverbs or other descriptors (she said in a whining tone), you're forced to make emotions, characterization, conflict--pretty much everything--come through with nothing but the words your characters say aloud.
(The flip side of this lesson is that I had to later learn to put back in the internal monologue, the emotions, the actions, the setting and contextual details and how to show all that. But that's another post.)
So if you're struggling with making your dialog snappy, alive, full of conflict, and captivating, try writing it first as a script.
Test yourself: How can you change your characters' speech to reflect what they're feeling/thinking/doing?
If you can succeed in making those things clear with just the spoken word, without relying on crutches like adverbs and actions, your story will be much stronger. It's a challenge, for sure. You'll yearn to add just one stage direction or action or adverb. Resist. Tell the story with pure conversation.
If you succeed, the scene won't be done, but you'll have some fantastic dialog.
Then you have to go back and insert the other good stuff, all those things that make a novel, a novel. When you do that (and well, by showing instead of telling), your story will come that much more alive.
Of course, you can't rely entirely on dialog (and we don't want "talking heads"), but working a specific scene this way can help you find a specific character's voice, motivation, and more.