The biggest challenge in writing dialogue, I think, isn’t necessarily actually writing good dialogue. Most of us can find examples of snappy one-liners or decent conversations. The problem, instead, is making sure that the dialogue doesn’t yawn and swallow the rest of the scene, leaving us with a couple of characters talking in what for all we can see might as well be a probabilistic haze (only without the need to occasionally duck passing electrons). It’s pretty easy to get to the point where it’s all dialogue, one steady run of one voice after another. We’ve all done it, I’m sure; I know I’ve done it far more than I like to think about. The trick, of course, is getting ourselves to stop—and this is something we need to do, or we end up with people who give up on the dialogue-heavy scenes because they just can’t see what’s going on.
I was looking at it today while coaching one of my friends through a scene that she was having trouble writing—issues with the subject material. Kind of thing that happens a lot when you’ve never actually done [fill in the blank], particularly when the blank is outside your comfort zone a bit. And that got me thinking. I already use visualizations for action scenes, applying the elements and principles of visual art to making the most important moments of my actions particularly spectacular, but what about everything else? That gave me the Comic Method.
The idea is pretty straightforward. If you’ve got a scene in which the most important part is the dialogue, and you don’t want it to look like it doesn’t have a clear referent, try imagining it as a comic, one or two lines of dialogue per panel. If you can keep pictures in your head, do it there, but if not, feel free to grab some scratch paper and draw little stick figures, give yourself a sense of what’s going on. Once you’ve got that, see if you can add something that hints at the picture as a narrative beat. Try to avoid the panels that are nothing but talking heads; you can have one or two of those in a scene, but most of the time your characters should be doing something, even if it’s not much of a change from what they were doing last time. Think of it this way; how often do you just stand still facing someone when talking?
What this does is force us to look at the scene through the eyes of someone who needs to make it as interesting visually as it is to listen to. Comic artists can’t hide behind their dialogue alone; since they need to include visuals, it gives them practice at thinking about what it is that their characters are up to between their words.
Do this enough, and you’ll find yourself thinking about what the characters are doing by sheer force of habit—and that, in turn, will make your talk-heavy scenes a whole lot easier to envision.