Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Say It Again: Some Tips on Writing Dialogue

When it comes to writing dialogue, I find that people either love it or hate it. Those who love it, are usually good at it, and those who hate it, usually struggle. I could be wrong, it's just what I've observed.

I'm on the "love it" side, in fact, most of my first drafts look like screenplays rather than novels. I'll get the pages back from my critique buddy and there will be notes like, "only one line of exposition in this chapter" or "Who's talking? Where are they?" Why does this happen? Because when my characters talk, I hear them, even if I don't have a clear sight of them.

I attribute my knowledge of dialogue to my freelance work. After I interviewed someone for an article, I would transcribe it, one of the most tedious activities imaginable. But listening to the way the subject talked, how they would trail off or not use complete sentences, really showed me how to give authenticity to my characters' conversations. We take for granted our use of slang, sentence structure, the way we interrupted each other or change subjects abruptly. Authors like Elmore Leonard, Hubert Selby Jr. or Richard Price had/have a keen ear for that and it shows in their dialogue.

Besides reading the authors I mentioned, here are some good activities to strengthen your dialogue skills:
  • Overheard Conversation Go to a restaurant, bar or coffee shop and eavesdrop on someone's conversation. Try to record it, by hand, word for word. You'll probably only get bits and pieces, but just notice how people talk and interact. You can bring a tape recorder, but that could border on stalking.
  • Screenplay Challenge Ever tried to write a screenplay? Take a scene in your novel or a short story you've written and try to rewrite it as a screenplay. There's no space for exposition, no scene set up. Every tone and feeling has to come through what the character says. After you're finished, get someone to read it with you, or better yet, get two people to read it and you just listen. Does their dialogue seem authentic? Are they stumbling on the words or is it flowing naturally?
  • Same Story, Different Character We all don't speak the same way. Depending on our educational level, socioeconomic background, region in which we live, even our occupations, everyone speaks differently. Ever listen to fire fighters talk with each other? What about an Irish bricklayer from south Boston? A middle aged socialite from Manhattan? They all use different vernacular, different sentence structure, different slang. Take a familiar story, like The Three Pigs, and write it with three different narrators. How would an LA gang banger tell it differently than a rancher from Wyoming?

I think these activities are a ton of fun and help develop your dialogue skills. Because truthfully, as a reader, dialogue can make or break a novel. I've picked up books with great concepts and great characters, but the dialogue was nearly painful to read and I had to put it down. Besides, it's within the quotation marks that the characters jump off the page and are truly brought to life.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your writing tips. Writing is always something I've admired, but never had felt I could put pen to paper. I'm impressed with the writing you've already done, and look forward to much more from you.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Excellent ideas.

I'm firmly in the "Love it" camp, and often run into the same problem with critiques.

Something that I've found very useful is to read the scene out loud, and then, cringeworthy though it may be, have someone else read it out loud. That's helped show me holes in the pacing and flow of the lines.