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When I'm writing dialogue, I have a problem figuring out what is the appropriate thing to say in the conversation. Could you please help?

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  • Hi, and welcome to Writers. This is a "what to write" question as posted, which is off-topic for us because it would only help you and is unlikely to be useful to anyone else in the the future. Stack Exchange is a Q&A site, not an online workshop. Please take our tour and see our help center writers.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic to see what kinds of questions we answer. If you edited this to be more general, rather than about this specific scene, the community may be able to help. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Apr 4 '17 at 15:51
  • I disagree, as this problem is reproducible from person to person. I think someone else might have trouble with the flow of dialogue. @LaurenIpsum – Featherball Apr 4 '17 at 17:10
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    @LaurenIpsum, it is not a what to write question. It is a how to figure out what to write question, and if we don't take those, what's left? – user16226 Apr 4 '17 at 17:42
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    @MarkBaker and Daniel: Since being edited, it is now on-topic. The original question wasn't. I'm happy with it as it now stands and I've retracted my close vote. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Apr 4 '17 at 18:11
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Dialogue consists of two characters trying to get something from each other. Each has a desire that they want the other to fulfill. Each has some reluctance in fulfilling that desire, or else has difficulty figuring out what that desire is because the other is not, for one reason or another, stating it clearly. They may be ashamed of their desire, they may be afraid of rejection, they may be attempting to deceive. But they want something, and they are choosing their words, in a way that is consistent with their character, to try to get the other person to grant their desire.

The is true of both people in the conversation, so every passage of dialogue is like a game of chess: move and countermove, each person attempting to increase their chances of winning.

If you don't know what to have a character say next, it is because you have not thought through what they are trying to get from the other person, or what the other person is trying to get from them, and why they are reluctant to grant it. Figure those things out and the next line of dialogue will be obvious.

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While dialog is often used to resolve a conflict of interests between two or more characters, it is not the only purpose it can serve; it can also be used to establish your settings (the notorious maid-and-butler/as-you-know trope comes to mind instantly, but when executed tastefully, a dialogue can provide you with a fast and compact way to avoid lengthy chunks of description, serving the reader only bits of information which are immediately needed).

The way your characters talk is may (or even should) be telling (or, showing, rather...). People, who know each other well, often finish each other sentences. People who are just introduced might want to impress each other with their eloquency, and some people start their sentences with "I mean" without, like, saying anything before that which might, like, require, like, clarification, or something.

Figure out your conflict, figure out the settings, decide who is talking, and type away.

One thing to avoid for sure: small talk. Unless you greeting bears an important meaning ("Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant"), all hi's and how-do-you-do's are just garbage whith pollutes the narration.

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    @MarkBaker Not all dialog must have conflict behind it. People, solving a common problem without disagreement, implied ego/daddy/substance-abuse/insert-your-fav-here issues, and unresolved sexual tension, also talk. Just saying. Dialog must have purpose in the narration, but it should not be charged with conflict where there is no need for that. – Lew Apr 5 '17 at 13:43
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    agreeable people working together to solve a problem is a white paper, not a story. Stories are about conflict. They require emotional engagement in outcomes, and that means conflict. There has to be something at stake in a dialog or it is just boring. – user16226 Apr 5 '17 at 14:36
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    @MarkBaker Stories are about conflict. Dialogue does not have to be, it can serve other purposes as well. Else any order given by a ship captain would result in a mutiny. – Lew Apr 5 '17 at 15:08
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    Conflict can be more subtle than mutiny. And I think you will find that in seafaring takes the Captain's orders are only recorded when there is some form of conflict either beneath the surface of his relationships with the crew or whistling across the surface of the deep. – user16226 Apr 5 '17 at 16:57
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    @MarkBaker the subtlety of the conflict in a dialog is not a question of whether it makes it into the captain's log, it is a question of its necessity. Find a conflict in a dialogue of two people declaring love for one another, or tell me that you have never read that particular whitepaper. While a nice juicy conflict is a must for any story, not all elements of it need to be imbued with a variety of its flavors. – Lew Apr 5 '17 at 18:37
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Read a lot. Pay attention to how your favorite authors present dialog.

You might find that written dialog doesn't include everything everyone says from when they meet to when they part. It starts when the important stuff begins and ends when it ends. It leaves out all the hellos and how are you's, as well as the I really should be goings and goodbyes.

Limiting yourself to the meaningful, important, interesting bits of conversations might help you get through them.

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    But... In some cases, the "I really should be goings" play an important role in getting to know the characters and their relationships. For instance, a character could cut off the conversation with protagonist with an excuse to leave, signalling to the reader that he/she doesn't want/need/wish to continue the conversation og consider the protagonist important - and so on... – storbror Apr 11 '17 at 8:40
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    So true, @storbror. After several drafts, I usually end up with only the dialog that matters. You give a good example of "throat clearing" that matters. – Ken Mohnkern Apr 11 '17 at 13:25

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