Writing Techniques: How to make dialogue more dynamic - using the topic pattern

writing techniques,

November 18, 2015

One way to make flat dialogue seem more dynamic is by changing what I call the "topic pattern".


When people talk naturally, they usually talk about one topic first, then switch to another topic.

Ann: Talks about topic A
Lee: Talks more about topic A
Ann: Introduces topic B
Lee: Talks more about topic B

You can think of this as a typical AA BB topic pattern.

Ann: How's the weather outside? (TOPIC A)
Lee: It looks like it's raining. (TOPIC A)
Ann: By the way, that's my turtle, I'm keeping him in my office (TOPIC B)
Lee: What do you feed him? (TOPIC B)

Changing the order in which the topics are introduced from AA BB to something different creates a sense of the unexpected that can make dialogue feel more dynamic.

For example, here is the same dialogue in an AB AB pattern:

Ann: How's the weather outside? (TOPIC A)
Lee: You're keeping a turtle in your office. (TOPIC B)
Ann: It looks like it's raining. (TOPIC A)
Lee: What do you feed him? (TOPIC B)

Once you understand that you can manipulate your topic pattern, you can create more complicated sequences.

Aaron Sorkin is famous for his dynamic dialogue, and he often uses unusual topic patterns to achieve that effect. Here's an example from The West Wing that uses the pattern ABCCCCCABB.

DONNA: You guys know it's five after seven? (TOPIC A)
TOBY: "Would you say things in this country are going in the right direction, or do you think they've gotten off on the wrong track." It should be right direction or wrong direction. Direction and track are two different words. (B)
CJ: Thank you, Funk and Wagnalls. (C)
TOBY: What'd she just call me? (C)
GINGER: Funk and Wagnalls. They make the dictionary. (C)
TOBY: I know who Funk and Wagnalls are. (C)
BONNIE: Then why did you ask her? (C)
DONNA: Guys, its five after seven. (A)
TOBY: The question's asymmetrical. (B)
CJ: That may be so, but the question has proven to be a consistent predictor of voter behaviour, so it stays the way it is. (B)

If you're curious how a more complicated pattern can look in a novel, here's an example from Prince's Gambit where I use the topic pattern AABCBCDD

Damen said, "It’s never a good idea to start a fight. Particularly against three men when you’re the type who goes down with one punch."

"If I go down, I stand back up. I’m not afraid to be hit," said Aimeric.

"Well, good, because if you insist on provoking the Regent’s men, it’s going to happen a lot. Tip your head back."

Aimeric stared at him, hand clasped to his nose, holding a fistful of blood. "You’re the Prince’s pet. I’ve heard all about you."

Damen said, "If you’re not going to tip your head back, why don’t we go find Paschal? He can give you a scented ointment."

Aimeric didn’t budge. "You couldn’t take a flogging like a man. You opened your mouth and squealed to the Regent. You laid hands on him. You spat on his reputation. Then you tried to escape, and he still intervened for you, because he’d never abandon a member of his household to the Regency. Not even someone like you."

Damen had gone very still. He looked at the boy’s young, bloody face, and reminded himself that Aimeric had been willing to take a beating from three men in defence of his prince’s honour. He’d call it misguided puppy love, except that he’d seen the glint of something similar in Jord, in Orlant, and even, in his own quiet way, in Paschal.

Damen thought of the ivory and gold casing that held a creature duplicitous, self-serving and untrustworthy.

"You’re so loyal to him. Why is that?"

"I’m not a turncoat Akielon dog," said Aimeric.

Raising your awareness of the way the topic is manipulated to create dynamic interactions in other writing will help you to use similar effects in your own.


One way of manipulating the topic pattern is to introduce a topic, then ignore it, only to reintroduce it later.

I think of this as the "Sorkin Technique" because Sorkin uses it so often - but plenty of other writers use this technique too.

Here's an example from The West Wing - notice how the topic of the doctor is introduced, ignored, then reintroduced for dynamic effect.

ABBEY: He's a doctor CJ, and he's heir to Colson Technologies.
C. J. : I spoke to Peggy about the vermeil. You might get a few questions.
ABBEY: I'm not embarrassed by the vermeil, CJ. It's not like new money was spent on it.
CJ: Yes, ma'am, but its history--
ABBEY: Its history is our history, and good or bad, we don't keep it locked in the basement, and we don't brush it with a new coat of paint. It's our history.
CJ: Okay... well. Good answer.
ABBEY: The truth'll do it almost every time.
CJ: Yes, ma'am.
ABBEY: He's a cardiologist, CJ.
CJ: Yes, ma'am.

Here's the same technique, again from The West Wing (I told you Sorkin uses this technique a lot!). This time, the topic of the code name "Flamingo" is introduced, then suspended for a while, only to be reintroduced later for dynamic or comedic effect.

CJ: Hey, what's your Secret Service code name?
SAM: They just changed 'em.
CJ: I know, what's yours?
SAM: "Princeton."
CJ: Mine's "Flamingo."
SAM: That's nice.
CJ: It's not nice.
SAM: A flamingo's a nice looking bird.
CJ: A flamingo's a ridiculous looking bird.
SAM: You're not ridiculous looking.
CJ: I know I'm not ridiculous looking.
SAM: Any way for me to get out of this conversation?
CJ: I'm gonna talk to someone.
SAM: Excellent.
DANNY: So I've put together a list.
CJ: Of what?
DANNY: Reasons why you should go out with me.
CJ: Really?
CJ: Well I'll tell you what. Gimme a few hours to put together my list of reasons I shouldn't, then we'll compare them and see where we are.
DANNY: Sounds good.
CJ: My secret service code name is "Flamingo."
DANNY: Nice bird.
CJ: Go away.

Overusing any technique can make writing seem formulaic, but it's always useful to have techniques like this that you can try when dialogue isn't working. Keeping track of your topic pattern, and altering it if necessary, or trying out unusual variants like the ones I've shown above can help to create a dynamic feel to dialogue.

You can find a complete list of the writing techniques covered in the series at the Writing Techniques Master Post