Which is not to say that writing is about fighting--although if you ask some of my students there's a battle with the fingers and the page and the brain--but today's topic is one I used recently in workshop, and I was so thrilled to have everyone's characters gain sudden depth and speak to us right there in a snow-crusted Starbucks while cellphones buzzed with urgencies and the police politely reminded people that icebanks atop their cars could turn into deadly weapons (I kid you not, and I thank them; a school secretary's husband was killed by a truck iceberg last year).
Anyway, since digression is one of my favorite things, I will break up this topic for you so you can follow along. Don't cheat.
1) pick two characters. If you're not working on something right this minute, pick a real person and make up a character. Write (or type) their names on the top of the page.
2) Pick a conflict. Commit. I know you might think, oh, I have plenty in mind, but just pick one, and write it down. Maybe it's a husband who wants to move to Yugoslavia and a wife who wants to stay in the Bronx. Maybe it's two sisters fighting over a shirt, some amazing boots, the only food in the house, a boy, or whose turn it is to call for an intervention.
3) Got both those things written down? Really, write them down first. I'll give you the next step next, after you write them down...
4) Write a dialogue between these characters, about this conflict. Choose first person (I said, for one character) or close third (she said; he said). Write this dialogue for 14 minutes or four pages, whichever comes first. Don't forget to just write.
5) go back to your dialogue (don't read this until you've written!) and add at least two beats (the spaces between dialogue in which the characters adjust their bra straps, or tip their chairs back, or think the opposite of what they're saying). Now add one more, making sure it gives some important sensory information, ie, She smelled like smoke, I thought, bitter and ruined.
Then post it all here in the comments, so we can be proud of you. Conflict and dialogue both, by nature, move a plot along. And with dialogue we hear your characters speaking, and they can think things they do not speak, and do things with their bodies (stepping backward, poking each other with pencils) that tell us even more. Can't wait to read you here!
Guess what? My new novel, THE ORPHAN SISTER, is coming in July 2011.