Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Starting a Scene With Dialogue

By Nancy Holzner

JH: Today we have a fun post from author Nancy Holzner for those who are like me (and Nancy apparently), and tend to write our dialogue first, and layer in the rest after. She does it differently than I do, and I found her technique interesting. Nancy and I also share a few other things, like a love of zombies and humor, often at the same time. If you enjoy fun urban fantasy with zombies (and a lot more, but the zombies are what makes me happy), go pick up Deadtown.

Nancy is a full-time author. Besides urban fantasy and mystery novels, she writes how-to and reference books, mostly on tech-related subjects. For example, she's written four books for O’Reilly’s Missing Manual series. Most of her nonfiction is published under the name Nancy Conner. 

Take it away Nancy... 

Writing a novel means wrestling, over and over again, with beginning. There’s the act of sitting down each day to write, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Each scene, each chapter—the novel itself—requires a beginning. When you’ve finished a scene, you have to figure out how to start the next one.

My favorite way to get started on a new scene is to sketch out the characters’ dialogue. I bring together two or more characters who appear in the scene and see what they have to say to each other. Often, the first time through, I just write down their words, noting who’s speaking if necessary. This bare-bones dialogue looks kind of like a script.

Here’s an example from a scene I’m writing for the third Deadtown novel. I already know the context in which the conversation takes place: Vicky, my protagonist, is at a late-night dinner party at her sister Gwen’s house. The evening is a disaster, and Vicky escapes to the kitchen to get away from the conflict in the dining room. In the kitchen she finds her eleven-year-old niece, Maria. Here’s the start of their conversation:
“Hi, Aunt Vicky.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”


“I think I hear a “but” coming.”

“But I couldn’t sleep.” Qqq “I’m scared to.”

“Bad dreams, huh?”

“Not bad. Some of them are good. But they’re weird.”

“Weird how?”

“It’s like I’m not me anymore. Qqq Mom said I should tell her if I have dreams like that.”

“Have you?”

“What will she do if she finds out?”
In case you’re wondering, qqq is my shorthand for “something’s needed here.” I use qqq because it’s easy to search for. Here, I stuck in a couple of qqq’s because there’s a pause in the dialogue where something happens—an action, a shift in the tone of voice—but right now I’m focused on the what the characters are saying.

After I’ve sketched out some dialogue, I read back through the conversation and think about fleshing out the scene. Where are they? I know they’re in Gwen’s kitchen, but what are their positions? Is Maria’s throat-clearing “hi” necessary to open the conversation? How do the characters look and act as they speak? How do they feel about the situation? During the second pass, I think about these questions and start layering in the answers.

So my next time through the excerpt might look something like this:
Balancing the stack of plates, I shouldered open the swinging door into the kitchen. Maria, wearing blue flannel PJs, stared at the doorway with wide eyes. She’d half-risen from her seat and looked ready to bolt. When she saw it was me, she slumped back in her chair.

I slid the plates onto Gwen’s spotless counter. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”


“I think I hear a “but” coming.”

“But . . .” A faint smile curled her lips, then disappeared. “I couldn’t sleep.” She murmured her next words so softly I almost missed them. “I’m scared to.”

I turned on the water at the sink. “How about you rinse, and I’ll load the dishwasher?”

“Okay.” She padded over to where I stood. Her bare feet looked cold on the tile floor. We worked for a minute or two in silence, Maria squinting seriously at each plate.

“Bad dreams, huh?” I asked.

She gave half a nod, then shook her head. “Not bad. Some of them are good. But they’re weird.”

“Weird how?”

“It’s like I’m not me anymore.” Worry clouded her face as she handed me a plate. “Mom said I should tell her if I have dreams like that.”

“Have you? Told her, I mean.”

Her wet hand gripped my wrist. “What will she do if she finds out?”
You can see, I’m sure, what I’m trying to do in the second pass: Show Maria’s worry and ambivalence about her dreams and Vicky’s attempt to get her niece to speak freely. Loading the dishwasher gives them something to do as they talk, and Vicky uses it as a way to make Maria feel more normal.

I’d go through a scene like this at least a couple more times before moving on—adding and subtracting, looking for places that need action or clarification or a hint about what the characters are feeling. Getting a sense of what they have to say to each other is the first step. Once I’ve got an idea of the dialogue, I can begin to picture what the characters are doing and thinking and feeling as they speak. It never fails me as a scene starter.

About Deadtown

They call it Deadtown: the city’s quarantined section for its inhuman and undead residents. Most humans stay far from its borders — but Victory Vaughn, Boston’s only professional demon slayer, isn’t exactly human…

Vicky’s demanding job keeping the city safe from all manner of monsters is one reason her relationship with workaholic lawyer (and werewolf) Alexander Kane is in constant limbo. Throw in a foolhardy zombie apprentice, a mysterious demon-plagued client, and a suspicious research facility that’s taken an unwelcome interest in her family, and Vicky’s love life has as much of a pulse as Deadtown’s citizens.

But now Vicky’s got bigger things to worry about. The Hellion who murdered her father ten years ago has somehow broken through Boston’s magical protections. The Hellion is a ruthless force of destruction with a personal grudge against Vicky, and she’s the only one who can stop the demon before it destroys the city and everyone in it.


  1. This makes a lot of sense. One of my critique partners recently commented on my dialogue, and I think this will help me make it better.

  2. Thanks, Janice, for inviting me to write this post. It was instructive to pay attention to how I do things (instead of just charging in). Now I want to hear about Janice's technique.

    @chicleeblair I hope you find my technique helpful! It does help sometimes to shake things up from the way you normally approach them.

  3. Chicleeblair: That's great! I really liked Nancy's qqq tip.

    Nancy: Good to have you here today. I've found writing the blog really makes me examine how I do things. It's interesting to dig in and ask why.

    I was actually thinking about how I plan to use dialog to help with my Shifter 3 revisions tomorrow, so it'll be a fun companion piece to your post!

  4. Great suggestions. I never thought to just get the dialogue out first. I'll have to try it.

  5. I like the qqq idea, too. This month in my NaNo draft, I started doing notes in brackets like

    They shook hands. “Safe journey. [Some note of caution or other detail to be used later]”

    That way, when I go back, I remember what I'd been going for. But it keeps me from spending ten minutes or more on a phrase that might get cut later. I also started using [lastname] when I hadn't figured out a character's last name yet, but it would have been said or referred to in that spot. One minor character is even referred to as Mr. Principal in my draft.

    Placeholders are wonderful things to keep the momentum going.

  6. this is one of those entries that i skimmed over but then stuck in my head to the point where I had to dig around to re-find it.

    i try to add context to my dialog as I'm writing, but i've found that i'm not doing it enough. i'll have to keep this idea in mind for my next draft zero.


    -- Tom

  7. NIce post. Thanks for the tips about fleshing out scenes. I'm always leaving notes to myself in my WIP. I put them in caps and make them searchable so they don't get lost.

  8. Okay, that is really interesting. Thank you for posting this advice.

    (Off to write something in two passes...)