Day 1: James Scott Bell’s Tools for Dialogue

Yes, this was a back-to-back talk given by Mr. Bell after which, my brain exploded. I’m still picking up pieces.

This is one small portion of his talk and since it doesn’t require diagrams, I thought I could share it without too much difficulty. (He does like diagrams.) Each of these tools are things we need to practice in each scene that has dialogue – and that means every scene for most of us.

1. Orchestration of Conflict: Keep the possibilities for conflict coming. Mr. Bell mentioned a scene in “Casablanca” where we see Rick, the Frenchman and the Gestapo agent talking about the war, Rick’s stance, etc. Throughout the scene, there’s an unspoken, but rising threat from the Gestapo.

2. P.A.C.: This stands for
P=Parental or authoritarian style of motivation.
C=Childlike, emotional motivational style.

Mr. Bell mentioned how you can watch the dialogue between Oscar and Felix in “The Odd Couple” go from one character being the authoritarian, to the adult to the child and how, given different situations, Oscar and Felix change roles. This keeps the scenes believable, dynamic and snappy.

3. Curve the Language: Write a line of dialogue, then swap words out and make it more threatening.

4. Turn Exposition into confrontation within dialogue. For the sake of a quick demonstration, please forgive me for using an excerpt from my own ms. The following scene has been posted here before. It’s a confrontation that happens between my villain (Hu Xiongli) and a minor character who is the head of the Butchers Guild:

“Tell me, Guild Master, has Tong Zhang written requesting money and food yet?”

“He has.” Wu crumbled more of his rice cake into the waiting mouths below. “You ought to know I cannot deny a guild member his rights-“
“I do. How long have you held your office, Yang Wu?”
Wu stiffened. It was the slightest of reactions. A flick of rice cake. A tic of facial muscles. Yet the implied threat was received. Now the enticement.
“You can deny him whatever you wish,” Xiongli said. “He is a traitor to the Empire and should be denied.” Silence reigned for a moment as Xiongli let his words sink in. Then he turned to Wu again and allowed the painted, friendly expression to return to his face. “You and your guild would be compensated.”
“A traitor to the Empire is still not a traitor to his guild, Lord Hu.”
“Ah, but if he is not a traitor to his guild, then what Empire does the guild serve?”

I do not baldly state anywhere in this scene what the threat to Yang Wu is. I leave that to the reader’s imagination. However, thanks to the scene’s setup, the reader is aware of recent capital punishments and an assassination attempt on Xiongli’s life that’s made him both bloodthirsty and jumpy. Both men are tense and each line is designed to show their struggles and desires as well as convey the importance of the guild.

5. Avoid Direct Response Dialogue: Don’t do things like: “Sally, do you want ice cream?” “Yes, Daddy. I want ice cream.” Answer questions with questions, non sequitur responses, etc. For example, “Sally, do you want ice cream?” “Why did you kiss Mrs. Tanner, Daddy?”

6. Go with the flow. Use dialogue without tags and beats. It’s liberating.

7. Minimize dialogue. When revising, copy and paste to a new file, then compress. Add beats for dialogue, and make sure your characters talk the way people really talk. We don’t always say, “Do you want ice cream?” Sometimes we’ll say, “Want ice cream?” or “Want some?” Yes, I am ice cream-obsessed.

8. Silence. Don’t make every response audible, but make your beats meaningful.

9. Tags. Mode and feelings should be evident from your verbiage. Beats go before dialogue. This helps identify the speaker, for one thing.

I remember trying (and failing) to understand Chemistry and despairing because my future father-in-law was my instructor and I so wanted to impress him. Years later, I confessed my confusion and he was disappointed I hadn’t said something at the time. He had other methods of explaining chemistry. He said if I hadn’t understood one approach, I might have grasped a different one. To me, James Scott Bell’s talk was helpful because I need to remember to THINK about these things as I write and not write by “feel.” What about you? Is approaching writing from this angle helpful?




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11 Responses to “Day 1: James Scott Bell’s Tools for Dialogue”

  1. Christina Farley says:

    Great post! These points are excellent. I like the idea of taking out words for a real speech feel.

  2. Janet Lane says:

    I missed this workshop, and really appreciate your sharing your notes, Victoria. Thanks!

  3. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for dropping in, christina! Are you back States-side? I've been out of things for awhile thanks to the conference. I'm glad if it gave you some food for thought. 😉

    Thanks for coming over to see me, Janet. I thought I'd share a little bit (obviously not everything) from all the talks. I hope that's ok. The conference was marvelous.

  4. catwoods says:


    My DH doesn not read my writing, but I did finagle a reading of my recent chapter book out of him. One of the things he was great at pointing out? Dialogue.

    At one point, he commented, "People would never say that."

    It was insightful and fun and is exactly the kind of advice you received from your speaker. Thanks for sharing and helping us better understand this mythical aspect of novel writing!

  5. Lisa Cindrich says:

    Thanks for giving us non-attendees the scoop on the conference presentations, Vicki. VERY much appreciated.

    My problem with "thinking" while I write is that I generally end up stuck in my own head. Total freeze-up. I usually just try to at least write a couple of notes about what what points/emotions I'm trying to convey in a scene and then just let 'er rip. Which, of course, means loads and loads of revising. So writing primarily by "feel" probably ends up making extra work for me, but it seems to be the only way to do it. Things like these (excellent) dialogue tools become more helpful for me in the revision stage than in the initial draft.

  6. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for dropping in, Cat! The way Bell talks about writing, there's nothing mythical about it. It's so obvious when he talks. It's coming back home and doing it where the mythology creeps back in. Sigh.

    Hi, Lisa! Thanks for the comment and you and I are in the same boat. If anything, it sounds like you think and plan more than I. I'm too much of a "pantser." I wish it wasn't so, but what are you gonna do? I DID use an outline for my first draft. It sucked. I'll probably do the same thing again this time around and it will most likely suck again. With big squilchy sounds. ;D

  7. Lisa Cindrich says:

    But then you'll write your second draft and it will be much less squilchy! (May I steal that word? I like it!)

  8. Rachna Chhabria says:

    Good Post Victoria! Thanks for sharing.

    btw…I have given you an award on my blog.

  9. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for dropping by and for the award, Rachna! I'll come by and see you "in person." ;D

  10. Margo Berendsen says:

    I just heard Bell at a workshop in early June too and he is amazing! His talk wasn't about plot or dialogue, it was about inspiration and imagination, so it was great to read these posts as well. Excellent information. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Victoria Dixon says:

    Oooh, I would have loved to hear him on inspiration! By any chance did you do a blog on his talk?

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