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How to create your own “dialogue cue” practice

In an earlier post, I wrote about some of the great tips I learned from writing guru Margie Lawson at the recent Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference.

Lawson coined the term “dialogue cues” to describe the psychological/emotional subtext around dialogue. (For a great discussion of subtext with examples, read The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter).

I’ve been experimenting with creating dialogue cues since Lawson’s class and made up my own “dialogue cue” practice as I did with metaphor practice.  Here’s what I do:

1.  Using one word or a short phrase make a list of attributes of your character—try using what Lawson calls “power words,” words that have an emotional or psychological impact on your reader.

The list for the antagonist in my current work might look like this: Sexy, Sensual, Ancient, Devious, Infectious, Hypnotic, Charming.

2.  Next, think of the setting of the scene you want to work on. In the scene I have in mind, the protagonist and antagonist are driving in his Mercedes SUV down an isolated mountain road that runs alongside a river. My list of words: river, rocks, stone, current, dusk, alone, isolated.

3.  Next, what is the action in the scene? My antagonist is trying to seduce my protagonist and get inside her heart and mind. (Literally, it’s a fantasy story).

I set down all of the above in 5 minutes or less. Then I started free writing. My first attempt looked like this:

“I cannot tell you who to love,” he said, his voice like the nearby river eroding stones over time, leaving my insides smooth and liquid.

A good, non-clichéd dialogue cue can add emotional and psychological depth to your novel. As I reread scenes in my current project, I look for areas where a dialogue cue may add more emotional impact–without turning it into melodrama.

After I did this exercise just two times with existing scenes, I found myself more aware of dialogue and dialogue cues as I moved forward in my story, and I found myself naturally writing stronger prose.

Lawson provides lessons and packets on dialogue cues and other ways to make your manuscript stronger on her website.

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