Say What?

One of the key skills in writing fiction is mastering dialogue, i.e., making dialogue true to life. Sometimes what sounds perfectly normal in our heads becomes stilted when we read it aloud. Reading your work aloud is an excellent tool for spotting missing words, dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, bad dialogue, etc. (I’d advise against doing that in public places, however, unless you don’t mind explaining yourself to the cop someone will inevitably call.)

You’d think dialogue would be easy given the fact that, well, you engage in it on a daily basis, but, for me, there’s nothing more story-killing than reading dialogue that doesn’t sound “right.”

I recently started reading a series by Kevin Hearne featuring a 2,000-year-old Druid (the last one in existence) who can carry on a conversation with his Irish wolfhound. Oh dear, I thought, this could be bad, really bad. I love it when I’m fooled. Hearne’s conversations between the Druid Atticus and his wolfhound Oberon are engaging enough to advance the story and comical at the right moments. You realize if you could converse with your dog, these are exactly the conversations you would have. It’s great stuff–not for the literary types, of course, but great entertainment.

One way to improve your dialogue is to take a real exchange you’ve had and rewrite it from different viewpoints, e.g., switch places in the conversation or respond the way you would have liked to at the time. And if you want your dialogue to be as true to life as possible, keep a notebook with you and jot down real conversations you overhear at the supermarket, a coffee shop, or a bar. Bars are the best because liquor loosens the inhibitions, and people say things they wouldn’t normally say. Supermarkets are good because most of what you hear is one side of a telephone conversation, and those are intriguing enough, as a writer, you can’t help but supply the other side in your head.

A few months ago I was in the coffee shop that was my regular hangout when I lived in Northern Virginia, and the three young baristas in goth mode were discussing zombie apocalypses in an everyday, commonplace way. I mean, when talking about where zombies come from, you can’t make stuff this good up:

“Voodoo, you know,” one says. “Like, in Africa.”

“Oh, yeah, Africa,” the other agrees.

The only male among them gave a short bark of laughter, a snort really, and said, “Africa. That’s stupid. Zombies come from China.”

“How do you know?” the first one asked.

“Duh, I’m in a bookstore. I read World War Z.

“Dude, that was, like, fiction.”

“Uh, no. It’s an ‘oral history of the zombie war.’ Go look if you don’t believe me.”

“Yeah, right. It’s in the science fiction section.”

“No, it’s not. On my break, I, like, move them all to the history section.”

See, I never would have come up with that on my own. If the story I wrote around that conversation ever gets published, I’ll go back and thank them, provided, of course, they have been changed into zombies. In that case, I’ll thank them before decapitating them.

Listening in on other people’s conversations can be touchy. You have to be surreptitious about it because if someone suspects you’re listening in on their “private” conversation in a public place, they can get upset. (Not that it’s happened to me, of course.) That’s why I prefer capturing snippets of real conversations on a computer or my iPhone. People expect you to have a computer anywhere there’s free wi-fi, so they don’t look twice, and almost everybody texts nowadays.

A caveat here: Don’t be tempted to use the “Record” attributes of your computer or smart phone. Yes, you can capture real dialogue word for word, but if you’re in a state that doesn’t allow taping of third-party conversations without the participants’ permission, you could be in trouble. I mean, who would know, unless you got caught, but there’s the whole ethics thing for me.

If you doubt this can be useful, I’d say just give it a try. Sometimes you might overhear something that clarifies a character for you or puts words in a character’s mouth. Other times you can get a fully developed character dumped in your lap. People are bloody interesting, and their real conversations can take on more meaning rendered in fiction. And how lucky are we that people feel as if public venues are their personal confessionals?

Seeing as how I’ve had very interesting conversations of my own in public places, I’m waiting for the day when I read a story or novel and go, “Hey, that’s me! I said that!”

What about you? Is dialogue easy or difficult for you? Where do you go to hear those jewels of dialogue?

4 thoughts on “Say What?

  1. I agree with you–dialogue is crucial to story telling–and it is the hardest for me to write. Another good resource are people who act in community theaters. I have a friend who helps me now and then. I also re-read and watch movies with dialogue I liked. But I’m thinking I am going to start going to the theater again.

    Although, now I want to go hang out at your coffee shop–just to hear the goth conversation. 🙂

    Wonderful post! Thank you!

  2. Dialogue used to be something I dreaded writing. I knew what I wrote was often awkward and clunky, but I think as with all writing, the best thing to do is just keep at it. You can’t get better without practice. Sometimes I even write only the dialogue for a scene to see if I can carry the scene with just dialogue, then I fill in the prose only when I’m convinced the dialogue could stand on its own. I don’t do it often, but it’s a fun little excersize to to work on my dialogue skills.

  3. Amazing how great minds think alike! My husband and I were discussing dialogue last night. I’d given him some pages of a screenplay that I’m supposed to read and then critique. (Yeah, right.) I used a hot pink highlighter on things that made me stumble during the reading of it. When it got to the dialogue, the poor screenplay began to look like it had chicken pox! It was so stilted and cumbersome. I looked at the Hubster and said, I don’t get it. Why is dialogue so hard? We do it every day.” To which he replied, as only a husband can do, “Huh?” Thanks for the article! It’s been put in my “Read Over and Over” file.

I live for your constructive comments.

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