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  • Writer's pictureEli Allison

Dialogue: Conversation Goals

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Want to improve your writing, but unsure where to start?

Then you've come to the right place. I've created a blog series where I show you a before and after of my very own writing talking you through my changes.

We're diving deep into dialogue over the next few weeks and last week was all about avoiding exposition in dialogue this week, we're tackling that sexy beast conversation goals.

How to write without losing your mind.

Once again we're just talking about the good old novel here, plays, film, a radio four drama, while all brilliant things to try and write, are not the creative endeavours we're looking for today. (Bet you didn't think I could shoe-horn in a Star Wars reference in here did you! How little you know my young Padawan. Boom! That's two. Can I go for the triple?!? I'm not sure I have a bad feeling about this... and there it is... Boom! Boom! Boom! That's how we do it! *Grunts loudly and drops mic*) What were we doing again?!? Oh right goals.

Ok? What is a conversation Goal?

Something that would burn small talk from the face of the Earth if was achievable in real life. Just like it sounds, you're giving each character a goal they want to achieve from the conversation.

Ask yourself what do your characters want from the encounter? Giving everyone a conversation objective is like giving your hero obstacles. Important for storytelling but it also adds interest for the reader, fleshes out the characters so they feel like real people rather than just parts in a play and can be a great way of playing with subtext.

The goals don't have to be anything grand and world-saving, drama can come from all sort of places, big and small the trick is resistance. One character wants something the other wants to stop them or wants something of their own.

Let's Visit Jim and Jill again, the cops from last week's avoiding exposition post and let's give them goals.

Jim wants Jill to settle down because he's worried about her wild unhealthy ways. He thinks happiness comes from being settled. Jill thinks being settled and married is boring and is happy as she is.

We left off on the 2nd draft and here it is as a reminder.

2nd Draft

There is nice back and forth a couple of light-hearted jibs at each other, but what is the point of the conversation? All this exchange does is give us some light characterisation and exposition but it can and must do more. Remember 'Good writing does one thing well, great writing does many things.'


Here's the neat version, so you can see what's going on.

3rd Draft

Although the encounter is getting longer, it's doing far more heavy lifting, we've set the scene, done some light characterisation and relationship development, AND created conversation goals.

One of the great things about giving characters objectives is that restrictions make for condensed dynamic writing. Once you have an idea of each players' motivations you have to work out how to get them from A to Z. It makes it harder to 'warble on', you'll be unlikely to write superfluous scenes because of your self imposed confines. It's why Conversation Goals should be decided either in the 1st or 2nd draft, not eight drafts down the line. This is foundational. The last draft is not the time to be thinking about this stuff, otherwise, you're going to be hauling arse editing everything that came before. Set the limits and requirements for the conversations and I promise isn't easy but it is easier.

What we've talked about today can also be a great way of playing with subtext. Creating undercurrents so the conversation is more interesting for the reader and adds depth to your work. Like Jim's reaction to Jill eating any old thing, a reflection of her lifestyle, and her distaste for his salad repetition a reflection of his.

Top Tip
Goals are great for needed info-dumping. Example: You have a character arriving on a strange magical ship you could just have one of the crew tell your MC everything, efficient but boring. What if instead, the Captain told the crew not to tell anyone new about the ship because you can't trust them. Now your MC has to work hard to get the information, (info-dump) out of other characters, it adds tension and drama whereas before you just had a boring info-dump.

So Remember...

That's it for this week but join us next time when we join Jim and Jill again and see how we can write in character. Always happy to chat writing, stories, and the end of the world, (dystopian writer here) so head on over to that there Twitter and hit me up with your own tips or just to say hello.

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