3 Things to Make Your Dialogue 10x More Epic

Are you ever writing a scene and wonder why you're just not jiving with it? You have cool characters. They're doing cool things, and hanging out in a cool setting. But the scene's just not working, and you can't quite put your finger on why.


Story of my life, literally.


There were several key scenes in The Last Phoenix that just weren't working... until I discovered these writer secrets.


1. Your main character and the person (s)he's talking to should have agendas - in conflict with each other.


My problem scenes were sprawling with useless dialogue that seemed to go wherever it wanted... until I employed the above. Here's an example of "bad" dialogue in The Last Phoenix:


“Are you alright?” Arrys panted.

“Still recovering from my beating," Zayne said. "Look at us, two almighty Darkslayers off to fight an evil Crown Prince. Perhaps we’ll make Book Seven of The Legend of the Four, huh?”

"Perhaps. I cannot stop thinking about Sami."

“The Tribes are looking for her. They won’t give up.”

“You are right. Zayne, tell me - did you enjoy it?"

“Enjoy what?”

"When you were in Aaladina."

“To be honest... I did enjoy it.”

Arrys stood up and turned his back.


Booooooring. Low tension. Both characters have passive agendas, or hazy ones at best.


Here's the revised version:


“Are you alright?” Arrys panted.

“Hey, look at us.” Zayne spread himself out. “Two almighty Darkslayers off to fight an evil Crown Prince. Perhaps we’ll make Book Seven of The Legend of the Four, huh?”

He was keeping a polite distance again. Lordhigh, Arrys was so weary. He decided not to say anything of it. “I don’t think we deserve to make anything with Sami gone.”

“The Tribes are looking for her. They won’t give up.”

“She is dead.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“She dropped from a thousand feet. Are you a fool to hope?”

“Stars, Arrys. If we don’t have hope, then what do we have?”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy what?”

“When you were in Aaladina, what else?”

“You’re mad again. What are getting mad about?”

“We were talking about Sami.”

“You know what? I did enjoy it.”

Arrys stood up and turned his back.


Did you notice the difference? Arrys and Zayne have conflicting agendas now - Arrys wants Zayne. Zayne is keeping his distance, although he has strong feelings for Arrys. What both of them are saying on the surface are cues to what they're really thinking underneath.


= +tension


The surest way to make your novel fail is to have low tension go on for too long. Tension should always be present, everywhere, every chapter, every scene.


Give your characters agendas. Make them conflict with each other. When you try this tactic, your readers will be much more likely to read on than if you'd used dialogue like my first example.


2. Make your characters reply with sideways answers.


I see newer authors have dialogue where characters are giving such direct, expected answers that I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of the scene is. Let's actually look at the last example from above.


The original version:


“Are you alright?” Arrys panted.

“Still recovering from my beating," Zayne said. "Look at us, two almighty Darkslayers off to fight an evil Crown Prince. Perhaps we’ll make Book Seven of The Legend of the Four, huh?”


Here is the revised version:


“Are you alright?” Arrys panted.

“Hey, look at us." Zayne spread himself out over the bulwark with haggard breaths. "Look at us, two almighty Darkslayers off to fight an evil Crown Prince. Perhaps we’ll make Book Seven of The Legend of the Four, huh?”


Zayne is obviously avoiding the question - because of a hidden agenda. It's clear that he isn't doing alright at all. The truth is, he's dying, and he doesn't want Arrys to know. The reader doesn't entirely know either.


Doesn't taking out "Still recovering from my beating" raise interesting questions and up the tension than if I just outright had Zayne say, "I'm dying" or even, "I'm not feeling to well, but it's okay"?


3. Subtext your conversations.


"Subtexting" has saved countless Four Kingdoms scenes from curling away into a hole. It just means having the characters talk without saying what they really mean. I used this trick quite a bit in Flameborn, between Toran and Anji's growing romance (hopefully you noticed!).


Here's an example from The Last Phoenix:


As they all huddled into the tomb, Sokura lit a fire. “What think you of my trove, Middle Prince?” A sideways glance. “Is there a treasure here you fancy?”

Zayne spoke for him. “I see nothing good.”

“The treasure I fancy,” Arrys said, “is the most arcane knowledge that can be found in no other place.”

Sokura’s grin grew wider. “Oh, well. Why go hunting afar for that kind of knowledge when I own it in this hole? Men from all over the Kingdom ache for its most saccharine taste, though most are not worthy enough to make it.”

“Because the entrance to your hole is too small?” Arrys suggested. “Or your visitors are too big?”


The two young men are flirting hard with Arrys, although none of them will outright admit that they feel attracted to him. If I'd changed it up and had both of them say how much they liked him, and even snuck him a kiss, the scene wouldn't have been as fun - right?


Subtexting also works really well in less romantic circumstances - like threats or hints of abuse. It massively increases the tension, and dialogue becomes your weapon to slipping out secrets/information while making the reader excited to flip to the next page.


Of course, there will always be times when you need to have the characters reply directly to each other so the reader knows what's going on. But when you mix subtexting, with conflicting agendas and sideways answers, watch your ratings climb. Readers will say that your book was a "page turner" without being able to say why!


What other tactics do you use to drive dialogue in your manuscripts?

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