Conversation trees

I’m afflicted with a trait called ‘cluttering’. It means that when I speak extemporaneously, I talk quickly, and in a disorganized fashion. If I’m very excited, I can even lapse into semi-connected fragments of sentences. This usually happens because I’m trying to say more than one thing at the same time.

I experience this when I’m writing, too. It shows up the most when I’m writing exchanges between complicated characters, midway through the story. I often feel as if Character B could reasonably say a number of things in response to Character A– and I know what all those things are. Many of them seem quite important to say– but as soon as I choose a single response, the opportunity to say some of those other things is gone.

This is where a poorly outlined scene can drag my story off rails. If I don’t know where a conversation is going, complete with some actual dialog guideposts, I can decide on an exchange that can totally change the story. This can be really frustrating because the conversation feels genuine and true to the characters and, since I’ve already written it, seems like the only thing they can say.

Alternately, I can end up writing really cluttered exchanges, where I try to include everything happening at once, or address every statement, or describe everybody’s reaction in a group scene. One of the best writing lessons I learned when I was younger was to limit almost every exchange to two people or maybe (rarely) three people. There are tricks that make this useful advice even in gatherings of large people. I one wrote a party scene that I think worked very well by casting it as a sequence of short 2-person exchanges, which not only allowed me to feature lots of people but gave the scene unusual energy.

I’m still working on applying that advice in non-dialog scenes. My current project has several action scenes with five or more characters and I really have trouble figuring out how to manage them. It seems like focusing on only two characters at a time is extra-hard when I’m using a close point of view and what the other characters are doing matters to the protagonist’s fate. I’ll be coming to the first of those scenes soon in my review of MBG and hopefully I can come up with a method of tightening them up. ‘Cluttered’ was exactly the word a beta reader used to describe them…

I wonder how other writers envision dialog?

(Hey, look at my subject line. I was going to make a reference to writing conversation trees for video games, which is an activity I enjoy doing and excel at organizing. But I made different choices in structuring this post, so it went off rails! The penalty of disorganized writing! Well, another time.)

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