Knowing what makes dialogue great is good, but it's better if you can actually put it to use. Maybe you need to practice some bits or revise others. Either way, this page will hopefully help you do so.
This page has a collection of exercises, some of which apply to what I've written in the dialogue guides and others which are just fun and helpful in general.
If you've read the dialogue guide, I hope it was helpful to you, and entertaining to read. It was certainly fun to write the guide, and to draw the images. There are a lot more guides available, and a lot more coming in the future, but not all will be strictly writing related. So keep an eye out for those if you're interested in more.
Write down a conversation two people are having in real life. It can be a conversation between two people on the bus, two classmates/colleagues or just two random people you come across.
Try to get a conversation which is about 5-10 minutes long, it doesn't matter if the conversation is boring, as long as you don't fall asleep during it at least.
Once you've written it down, turn that conversation into dialogue fit for a novel. If the whole conversation was about nothing much you could be done within 1 sentence: "Hours flew by as they talked about games, YouTube videos and tv shows."
However, that would make for a boring and somewhat pointless exercise. If the conversation really was about nothing good in particular, add it yourself. Add conflict or a twist to the story. Make it exciting, make it something somebody would gladly read.
Take a conversation from whatever story you wish (preferably a good one), it can be from a tv show, a movie, a novel or comic book. It doesn't really matter, but make sure the speaking characters differ for from each other.
Now rewrite that story by swapping the personalities or positions of the characters within that conversation. Think about how the dynamics would change, how any tension or drama would change and how the story changes completely.
Say you have a conversation between a vulgar, muscular bully who is terrorizing his timid, skinny victim. If you change personalities you suddenly have a timid bully who terrorizes a vulgar victim. Would the dynamics change to a point where you might feel sorry for the other person? Or will you still feel sorry for the victim?
If you change the positions of the characters you have a timid, skinny bully who terrorizes a vulgar, muscular bully. How would you make it seem like the bully is even capable of being a bully? Is it even possible when the bully is timid? Try it out, if it doesn't work you could change the character slightly to make sure it does work.
This one is similar to the previous exercise, but instead you change the viewpoint of the story. What happens to the story when you're not looking through the eyes of the general who is giving a speech to the soldiers who have to fight a battle once the speech is over, but instead you're looking through the eyes of the soldier listening to the speech. Is the soldier even listening? Does the soldier get motivated or does fear control his every thought.
Write or rewrite a conversation in which one of the characters is either mute, deaf or somebody who doesn't understand the language of the other. The point of this exercise is to force you to use body language instead of words. But keep the following things in mind:
- A mute won't be able to speak, but a mute can still make sounds. Depending on the questions the other character asks, the mute will still be able to answer, whether it's by nodding or shaking his head or by changing the tone of the sounds he can make.
- A deaf person won't be able to hear you, but he might be able to speak (if he wasn't born deaf). For the exercise we're assuming the deaf person cannot lipread (well) and neither characters know sign language. That would defeat the point.
- A foreign person might not speak the same language, but a few words might be familiar. Maybe the other character knows a few words as well.
There are a lot of great scenarios to which you can apply this challenge. Asking somebody on a date or being on a blind date, having to give somebody great or terrible news, introducing yourself as the new neighbor or buying something from the other character.
This exercise also works great in combination with switching POV and it's a great way to write some inner dialogue.
Find a random sentence of dialogue. It can be anything. A line from a podcast, a line from a let's play on YouTube, a line from a song or even a line from that annoying commercial you keep hearing over and over.
Once you have that sentence, write a short conversation around it. The weirder your sentence is the harder it'll be to make the conversation sound natural, but that's a good thing.
If you want to kick it up a notch, try doing the same exercise but instead of just 1 sentence you take 2 or 3 or however many you'd like. Do make sure they're from different sources though, it makes it more challenging.
Remember that you don't have to stick to the theme and feeling of the original sentence. If you take a line from a let's play of a YouTuber you might get a casual 'I'm going to die!' when that YouTuber makes a mistake in a game. But that same line has a lot of emotional weight in a dramatic setting, but it could also be very lighthearted when somebody says it while laughing hysterically after a joke.
Hidden agendas, conflict, attitudes and other aspects which add tension make for great tools to make dialogue interesting. Write two conversations, in both one character has a hidden agenda, something the character wants from the other or something that character wants to hide from the other.
In the first conversation the second character will have no clue what the intentions of the other is. In the second conversation the second character will know exactly what the other wants.
Notice how the tension changes between the two conversations. When the second character knows nothing, the reader will wonder if the first character will succeed. In the second conversation the reader will first wonder the same, but as the conversation progresses it becomes clear the second character knows what's going on, will the first character be able to get out of that situation?
This is another exercise which works great in combination with changing POVs, so you could write 4 conversations, 2 from character 1's POV and 2 from character 2's POV.