When it’s going well, writing dialogue can be like transcribing what the characters are saying all by themselves, trying to keep up with them. Before you know it, a whole scene has gone by and the characters have pulled you off piste, changing the direction of your work in progress to something better than you’d planned.
Other times, it’s like trying to pass a kidney stone. Here are some things I’ve found helpful for getting through stuck dialogue.
Give them the reins.
The problem may be that you’re trying to direct where the conversation is going. Of course the characters aren’t real, and anything they say does come via you. But if you have an overbearing ulterior motive for their conversation that pulls it out of character, the discussion will feel off and be hard to write.
Sometimes this issue involves trying to make a character say something which expresses your Big Idea. The protagonist has asked the guy at the truck stop the Big Question, so now you want the truck stop guy to become a philosopher for one line of dialogue to answer it. Nope. The character isn’t your mouthpiece.
Or it might be about getting the plot to move along your plan. You might think you really need Sarah to address what Jack did now they’re alone on the pier, but if she’s well established as having a pathological avoidance of conflict, it’s likely not happening. Let the characters take the reins.
Maybe Sarah’s creepy sister Meg will force her to mumble what happened and Meg can go set fire to Jack’s house, sparking a whole new exciting chain of events. Maybe Sarah will hold it in, gradually slide off the rails with the strain, and go postal later on, ultimately beginning to learn assertiveness. And so on. If your characters are reasonably developed, they’ll go somewhere interesting given some free movement.
Get back in touch with who these people are, and what’s going on in the plot and the setting that they’re likely to talk about. They write the story, not you. Each one sees themselves as the protagonist of their lives, and each one is trying to get something for some reason.
Break from excess neatness.
Sometimes I’ve been struggling to come up with a character’s next line of dialogue – until remembering that they don’t actually have to be the platonic ideal of a conversation partner. Dialogue isn’t always a neat clean chain of back and forth, each person speaking clearly, taking polite turns, and responding to questions with satisfactory answers.
Characters can ignore each other, interrupt each other, not have something witty or insightful to say, sharply change the subject, mishear, and repeat themselves. Take this line from Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
Seven pleases. That’s not standard. It probably breaks a rule somebody has pronounced from on high, but rules are made to be broken. Dialogue is allowed to be a little messy or uncooperative, the way it is in real life. Breaking from excess neatness is helpful for realistic dialogue between characters with conflicting interests.
Use action and the surroundings.
Where are the characters? There might be something around them which provides a jumping-off point for the next segment of dialogue. Don’t forget that your characters aren’t disembodied voices resting in infinite void. Let them interact with stuff, and a flat scene might become much more dynamic, with a stronger sense of character than you got through dialogue alone.
If your characters began the scene drinking coffee, they’re having a furious argument, and now you’re stuck for the next lines, maybe one of them could smash their mug on the wall and storm out. The other character might follow them along a busy street yelling while barging through pedestrians. Or the scene could end there. Or the other character might pick up the pieces and get out superglue.
Use objects, use sights and sounds and smells, use the weather, use bystanders. If you’re stuck for what words they’d say, show it with action instead.
Reported or implied speech.
When I’m finding a scene really awkward or melodramatic, it can help to just not have it as dialogue. Instead of making the reader plough through a monologue or a conversation that only exists to get to the next action, summarise or imply what would’ve been said.
Phrases like ‘they said what had happened’ can do a lot of good work. Does the reader need a scene where they discuss the plan for the robbery, or is it better if you simply use reported speech? Do we need to hear that phone call, or does it turn out more poignant if we don’t get to listen in, instead watching the physical reaction to it?
However, this can be used to make cheap suspense. If a character finally opens up about their terrible secret but we don’t get to hear it for some contrived reason, only getting ‘Greg told Jane the truth’ dangled before us, we’re going to feel a bit cheated.
If you know what’s going to happen but it’s a struggle to write, consider leaving a note and filling it in later. It might be easier from the other side, or you may find that you don’t actually need to write it anyway.
Write some trash.
Just grit your teeth, get through the scene, and edit later. Nobody has to read it.
Take a break.
You’re even allowed to go back to it tomorrow! Nobody gets arrested for not reaching a self-imposed word count.