Sometimes when we write, we have experience a bombardment of images that we want to get out on the page. When that happens, writing usually flows well. We click along, pouring out everything that’s in our heads. We’re so in tune with the viewpoint character (VPC) that we see and experience the things they are, and can convey them readily interspersing dialogue with perceptions and feelings as experienced by that VPC.
Other times, we have a scene in mind where all that can come to us is the dialogue. We know the scene is necessary to move the plot forward, but we just can’t seem to grasp the setting. So, what do we do? Here’s a trick. Write the scene with dialogue only. Don’t even worry about who your VPC is going to be. When the scene is “complete,” go back and flesh it out, deciding then who your VPC will be. (Remember, your VPC should be the person who has the most to lose. They will bring the most emotional baggage to the scene and will be most engaging to the reader.) Here’s a short example.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jane said.
“Oh, sure you don’t,” John said.
“I told you where I was.” Jane said.
“You want to try telling me the truth now?” John said.
“So you’re accusing me of lying? What about you?” Jane said.
“I’ve never lied to you.” John said.
“Right.” Jane said.
Now, this is clearly an argument, but it’s devoid of any context. What are Jane and John arguing about? Why? Who’s really lying?...and the story –killing question: Who cares?
Next, I’m going to decide where this conversation takes place. Giving the reader that information alone will put a different context to the scene. Think of what automatic ideas come to mind if I choose one of the following:
A park next to a playground where children are playing.
A diner on the outskirts of town
An upscale restaurant with crystal chandeliers lighting the atmosphere, and people dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos.
John’s living room.
Jane’s living room.
John and Jane’s living room.
How will the tone of the dialogue change based on these settings? What interruptions can/will/need to occur? Is the writer in you already working out all these things just based on that?
Once you’ve chosen the setting, now think about who has the most to lose. (You’ll know this based on the rest of your story.) Then continue to flesh out the scene. First by replacing the he said/she said with some action beats, then with more that will make the setting come alive.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Was she really going to play that game? He leaned across the table. “Oh, sure you don’t.”
“I told you where I was.” Her voice squeaked, and the couple at the table next to them turned to gape.
He gave them an apologetic smile and then turned back to Jane. “You want to try telling me the truth now?” He took a deep breath and willed his heartbeat to slow. He’d seen her going into the hospital. He knew she was there.
“So you’re accusing me of lying? What about you?”
Her words hit him hard, and for a moment, response eluded him. “I’ve never lied to you.” He dropped his gaze to the cold steamed carrots on his plate. Not exactly, anyway.
The chair legs scraping across the marble tile sounded like the ominous cock of a gun, each click of her heel bullets to his heart.
From simple dialogue, we can flesh out a scene. Now we know whose point of view we’re in. We know the setting, and we know that both John and Jane are hiding something. This technique may help you figure out where a scene needs to go, and it may also help unblock writers block if you’re experiencing that, making it easier to push through a scene you may be uncertain about. Remember, the idea is to get that first draft down on paper. Perfection happens later. :)