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I have a number of scenes in my story that involve two or more characters talking to each other about various issues, many of which wander into semi-philosophical discussion regarding some of the general themes of the story (e.g., the arguments you see between characters over life philosophies in manga/anime, some of the discussion of geopolitics in Game of Thrones, etc.) that also influence character development and relationships.

I have an outline for the story so I know the general gist of what is said and what happens in broad strokes. E.g., in one scene I know that one character says something that makes another upset and storm off, which is necessary to set things up for the next scene where I need the character to be alone and angry in order for something plot-important to happen. I know what the character's mindset is going into the situation, I know the very, very general idea of what is said, and I know how the character's mindset changes as a result of the conversation.

However, I am having a problem where I don't know what the character are specifically going to say to produce that result, or the arguments they are going to make. I have been working on this story idea for a decade now, and I remember what happened is I had some vague ideas about what specifically was said when I outlined the plot a decade ago, but since then I've forgotten what I intended to say (I've had issues with forgetting the dialogue of scenes while I was trying to write enough notes down in the moment to not forget them). It's the equivalent of knowing a scene summary but not the actual dialogue or points made.

So now I have this issue in that I don't know how to get my characters to make the point they are trying to make in this scene. They have very distinct voices, but for some reason getting them to actually say it coherently is hard (specifically because these are scenes that establish who they are as characters).

I'll use two scenes as examples, mostly because they involve the same characters (the male and female romantic leads of the story) and relate to the same issue.

  • The first is the initial "meet cute" between the two romantic leads. The guy is distraught over a tragic, traumatic event in his life (which I do know exactly what it is but am not detailing here for copyright reasons), whereas the girl sees a stranger being upset and talks to him, talking him through the crisis and convincing him to pick himself back up. This is supposed to be one of the key moments in the story to show the reader they have chemistry and an emotional connection. However due to the plot (a star-crossed lovers story), the two of them have this meeting without either ever realizing who the other is (and that the girl just helped someone who is technically her greatest enemy), which is part of the dramatic irony of the scene.
  • The second is a later scene between the two after their affiliations are revealed. The two are alone talking about something, the guy specifically feeling alone and unwanted, and the girl accidentally lets it slip that she feels the same way. This is the point at which the characters go from merely being interested in the other to actually having romantic feelings, and the point at which is becomes very apparent the two understand each other emotionally on some level. This leads into the characters gaining the motivation to take the actions necessary in the next scene.

As can be seen, I have an idea of what happens in these scenes and how it influences character development, but I cannot easily articulate what the characters say or the specific arguments they make. I know how they see the world and how the conversations affect their character development. This is a big problem because in some cases, like the above, these are really important scenes used to establish chemistry between characters, and without it their relationship feels plot-mandated rather than developing naturally. This isn't only the case with romantic scenes, but it's where the lack thereof is felt most strongly.

The closest I have been able to get is when I randomly have flashes of "oh, that would be an interesting point to make" and write it down, but ultimately that results in a rather incoherent argument that doesn't seem to have a point, and even worse does not build the emotional chemistry I am trying to create.

Given this, what does one do when they know the general gist of how a scene or a philosophical argument is supposed to go but cannot easily articulate what the characters precisely say?

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    You know exactly what the purpose of each scene is. I also really like this structured way of working. But can it be that this structuredness blocks your writing flow? Maybe you could try leaving the purpose of the scenes on the side for a moment. Let your characters speak. Write dialogues - even if for the trash can. Maybe then you'll figure out how your characters should express themselves. – signedav Jun 6 at 4:51
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    "I've had issues with forgetting the dialogue of scenes while I was trying to write enough notes down in the moment to not forget them" - I'd highly recommend using a voice recorder for situations like this, if possible. There's an app for that. – Lindsey D Jun 7 at 5:48
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    "...which I do know exactly what it is but am not detailing here for copyright reasons" -- I suspect you have a misunderstanding about how copyright works. Not detailing it because it's not germane to the question is reasonable. Not detailing it for copyright reasons is just silly. – Galendo Jun 7 at 18:09
  • @Galendo This is something that is actually said a lot on online writing forums and places like Stack Exchange: posting something online can not only allow others to potentially scoop your idea but can cause issues with trying to get the work published down the line because you may have potentially voided your claim by posting it on a public forum. See this question (writing.stackexchange.com/questions/9917/…). That's why I've always heard it's good to be generic. – user2352714 Jun 7 at 20:01
  • Start by deciding whether you mean "what the character says" or "what the characters say", or explaining why that matters not. – Robbie Goodwin Jun 8 at 2:14
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Wait for Inspiration...

...but in the meanwhile, if you've been working on this project for a decade, you really need to do the slogging through to get the story written. I would place holders (a bit like in this question) in the story with notes about what should go there, and keep moving on with the story. If you're anything like me, you'll be going along and all of a sudden the conversation will crystallize in your mind, and some plot element later in the story will fill in the missing pieces. This adds the benefit that the story-establishing scene will get tied directly into the later story. You'll realize that to make the rest of the story work, Jill has to [inadvertent racial insult? inappropriate sexual comment?] to get the elements to all tie together.

So I'd suggest [tell the OP some idea about having brackets with a mini outline in it] or something like it. When editing, if you haven't gotten inspiration, you can search for brackets and find all the places you left place holders and fill them in later. At that point, the rest of the story is written and can't be forgotten. You can come up with the remaining content at your leisure without stopping you from finishing the book.

This does mean the editing process will be longer, because you'll have new material to insert. But editing is often a chance to redo scenes you aren't sure of. The other alternative to mini-outlines is to place poorly approximate discussions in these brackets and plan to edit them the same way. You MIGHT even be able to leave these in and get opinions/feedback from beta readers, but I find good beta readers to be so valuable I don't want to alienate them with crappy incomplete dialog. [CLEVER/INSPIRATIONAL ENDING LINE HERE]

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  • I don't think many professional writers wait for inspiration. If you have a job where producing text is involved, be it mails, reports, articles, or even fiction, you know what I mean. Of course, if you write to get away from work and aren't worried about never finishing, then waiting can be nice relaxation, maybe... Inspiration seems to work the same as burning calories, it happens when you do the (right type of) work, preferably on a schedule: thewritelife.com/writing-inspiration-or-routine – Erk Jun 7 at 19:44
  • @Erk This just means they keep going when they stall out. The OP has been working on their project for a long time and needs to make it happen. Since this means they aren't a professional, they can't be expected to crank stuff out spontaneously. The mostly finished story provides a framework for them to fill in the blanks. I know professional authors who gave me this technique that they use, although I personally use it sparingly. I'm hoping it could get them over the hump, so to speak. – DWKraus Jun 12 at 0:01
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Forget the old dialog

You don't state explicitly if having forgotten the old dialog trips you up or not, but in case it does, you should accept that you've forgotten that dialog.

But even more, I've noticed that I'm able to tag some of my thoughts with a "brilliant" tag, only to later, when I tried it in reality it turned out that was just a tag I put on it. It wasn't brilliant at all...

It might not have been as brilliant as you thought, and that may be why you've forgotten it now...

The first draft of anything is crap

You're writing your first draft, right? It's supposed to be crap, have clunky sentences, and be glitchy.

You'll fix all that in editing.

But before you can edit, you need something to edit, and if a search for the perfect word or expression is preventing you from producing that first draft, you should try to settle for less than perfect for now...

It's not just that the first draft of anything is crap... in many cases, the only way to get the first draft of anything is to write crap.

Dig into characters

When I get stuck like you, and I feel that I'm not even able to produce bad dialog, I usually dig deeper into my characters.

I don't have extremely detailed descriptions of them (depending on how important they are or how troublesome) so there's always more to dig up about them.

Or I take a pause or work on something else, especially something mundane and simple... It really gives the brain the pause it needs to be creative.

No plan survives the first contact with reality...

However, you also have to accept that the plan you had from the start might not be feasible. I've found several times that my characters just won't do what I want them to do.

This is a tremendous gift because those people are telling you something about the story.

You might need to go back and add a reason for your characters to act the way you like in previous scenes.

Or, you might have to ditch that plan and see where the story goes instead.

I'm somewhere in between an outliner and pantser, so I'm ok with the story taking some detours.

In fact, I find I have to revise the outline or parts of it as the story progresses, but I always feel that I know more after having written the first act or half the book or even more, than I knew before I've even written a word of the text so those revisions never feel wrong (albeit sometimes stressful or depressing).

It seems to me that your inability to come up with the words might be because your characters are in a situation where there are no words to get what you want from them.

So you change the situation and/or its background, or you scrap that plan and come up with a new one.

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  • +1 for "No plan survives the first contact with reality." – Dave Kanter Jun 8 at 20:08
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    @DaveKanter, thanks. It's a paraphrase of von Moltke the Elder (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Helmuth_von_Moltke_the_Elder), but he talked about plans and enemies instead, and he further said that strategy is a system of expedients. In essence, instead of planning to cross a bridge that has not been destroyed, bring engineer troops that can build bridges if needed. Plan with options and have a well-stocked toolbox... – Erk Jun 10 at 1:42
  • Also, to quote the pugilist bard Mike Tyson: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." – Dave Kanter Jun 12 at 6:02
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Think about the situation, the characters, and what the characters would say in that situation.

So, first, if you've been working on something for a decade, I think you're probably best off getting cracking putting words on pages. Sit down at your keyboard, and start typing! When you get to the scenes you're struggling with, consider the characters present, the situation they find themselves in, and then start writing the dialog that you'd imagine that they'd say in that situation. Basically, do the writing equivalent of method acting.

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You need to think about precisely where the characters are, what they've been doing just before they got there, what they're seeing or doing while there, and what they're going to do right afterwards. When two people meet they don't just chat about random things out of nowhere. They're probably focused on something trivial and immediate, whether it's getting somewhere, satisfying a basic need, or they're just waiting around and not doing anything at all. Maybe one of them sees something or does something while they're talking/in the same space. Maybe one of them has something the other wants - that's a good reason for them to interact (think of cliched/classic rom-com moments like people going for the same book or one dropping stuff and the other picking it up). Try and think why they would interact at all (and if your initial idea doesn't work, junk it and try another).

Then once you have that, you need to write and rewrite until it seems natural. Don't worry too much about the exact words at first, think what they're saying and what they mean and what they want and feel with everything they say. If they are going to fall in love or make a connection, there must be some specific moment of connection, so you'll need to think of that, but it might well be something that crops up halfway through a conversation or doesn't relate much to what happened before. Conversations often go off on weird tangents or move to different topics, so try and let that happen. Often people don't listen to what the other person says. If they're misunderstanding or failing to recognise each other, then they could well be talking at cross purposes the whole time.

Once you have the character's short-term motivations sorted, you can think about the exact words they could say - although of course if the words and motivations come at the same time, as if you find the characters voice as you think about what they're doing, that's good too. But probably it will only come by writing and rewriting.

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Throw away idea too long for a comment. This is a common trope. I vaguely remember several versions of it in Shakespeare. Consider finding them, then writing your dialog to parallel what you read in tone, changing the content as appropriate for your plot.

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So your problem is sort of like deciding to write:

John rushed into the room screaming "The Sun is exploding! Everyone's doomed!"

or:

John entered and that the Sun was exploding and would destroy all life soon.

You can write the conversation three possible ways:

  1. a longer scene exactly quoting everything the characters say in their discussion

or:

  1. a shorter scene summarizing what the characters say

or:

  1. an intermediate length scene where some statements are quoted exactly and some are summarized.

So version 2) might be written as, for example:

"Smith argured in favor of free will while Jones argued in favor of predestination. And though their arguments were brilliant, neighter convinced the other to change their position."

Version 1) would involve writing every line of dialog Smith and Jones said.

And version 3) would consist of sections that were exact quotes as inversion 1) and otther sections which were summaries as in version 2)

And the stronger and better the reasons you have for making the characters say what they say, the better any version or stylle you write the conversation in will be.

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I've had issues with forgetting the dialogue of scenes while I was trying to write enough notes down in the moment to not forget them

This means that you imagined the dialogue first in your head. If I could remember all the things that went on in my mind, I could write a book full! Many of the things I imagined I can't remember though. A true pity. I even imagined something for this answer, but I don't remember what it was, so right now, I am typing what I think without remembering a past thought. I think that's the best way to write, although a general outline is, generally, welcome.

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