I was originally trained as a screenwriter. As a result, my first novel was a bit dialogue heavy. It’s the element of story telling that I’m most comfortable with, and it feels like the easiest way for me to reveal character. My second novel was more balanced.
I’m often asked for ideas and tips for creating dialogue. Unfortunately, the best one I have is the most obvious. Get out there and listen to the way people talk. Over the years, I’ve become an expert at eavesdropping. As a child, I used to sit on the stairs, spying on my parents’ conversations when I should have been in bed. I listened in on everyone’s telephone calls as well, not very honorable, but there it is. These days, I spy in restaurants. I highly recommend it. It actually helps if you have a companion with you. If you are alone and sit next to people in a restaurant, they are very aware that you are probably listening, and they often alter their conversation or their manner of speaking, neither of which helps a spying writer. These days, I spy with my husband. We don’t set out to listen in, but we have a way of appearing to be deep in conversation while keeping an ear open to those around us, which seems to lull people into a false sense of privacy. Capturing the conversation must be done discreetly. I recommend typing into your cell phone as if you’re text messaging. They may think you’re rude, but they probably won’t catch on to what you’re doing. I don’t think I’ve ever used dialogue directly from something I’ve overheard, but I have certainly learned patterns and subtext this way. If you see me in a restaurant, I don’t recommend sitting at the table next to mine.
I also enjoy hearing snippets of conversation on the street and trying to imagine how the remainder of it might go. The other day, at a hospital where I was visiting a friend, two female employees were having a conversation, and I overheard this line: “Well, I obviously can’t wear white, now can I?” My first thought was that they were talking about a wedding, and that the speaker was revealing some kind of moral status. Then I reconsidered. Maybe these were nurses, where the traditional uniform has always been white. I went home and played with the dialogue, making up several possible scenarios. It was a fun exercise and good practice.
Of course, the greatest gift to writers seeking dialogue is the one-sided cell phone conversation. People don’t have any qualms about standing next to you and saying the most intimate or combative things. My writer’s brain is always trying to fill in the other side, and since people are rude enough to talk loudly while standing right next to you, it’s a guilt-free pastime.
As I’ve listened to more and more conversations, I’ve become aware of how essential the rhythm of speech is to communications. Rhythm is important in all writing, but I think it’s even more so in writing dialogue. It’s also one of the best ways to distinguish between characters. I’m a big fan of attributing dialogue, but when the rhythm is right, the reader can easily tell who is speaking. For this reason, I think it is extremely important to read your work aloud or even tape yourself. When you do this, you can tell almost immediately when you have made a mistake. In long works, when your most familiar character is your protagonist, you may find her voice taking over the voice of other characters. If you hear dialogue read aloud, you are much more likely to notice this kind of mistake.
To help keep individual voices unique, I often try to become the different characters I’m writing. I’ll walk around as them, talk on the telephone as they might, etc.. This is an acting lesson I learned when I lived in L.A., and it can be very useful when it comes to creating believable dialogue. It takes several tries, sometimes days or weeks to find the voice of a character, but it’s worth the effort. It has to be something you commit to though, so I recommend letting your family and friends know what you’re doing. I often try to take the character out on the town to see how she would interact with others by doing everyday things like going shopping or to the Post Office. This is great unless you run into someone you know, so I recommend trying it in a neighboring town.
Even with years of practice, I’m not comfortable with all the possibilities of dialogue. For example, I hate writing in dialects. I find it distracting and often silly. This may come from the fact that I’m not good at it, but it seems to me that, unless the writer is an expert at the local lingo, every mistake stands out to anyone from that regional area. A story that uses the word “wicked” as a New England expression, may fly in Peoria, but it’s going to stand out as either dated or too cute to someone from Boston. I expect the same works in reverse, but I’ll never know, and that’s the problem. Using an occasional word that is regional can be good, as long as it isn’t overworked (like “wicked”) or spelled out phonetically in dialogue. Of course, in historical fiction, it is sometimes necessary to use dialects. There are writers who do it very well, but I’m not one of them.
Subtext is hugely important in writing dialogue. In fact, I think it may be the most important element of all. If you really listen to people, they seldom speak directly. More often than not, their true meaning is hidden or at least couched in some way. Subtext is a great way to involve the reader in the story by letting him discover something about the character that you aren’t saying explicitly. It’s another form of showing not telling.
As a general rule, I think dialogue should be as sparse as possible. Long monologues tend to distract the reader, and though exposition is often best revealed in dialogue, it becomes obvious very quickly if it is overdone. I’m a fan of attribution, and, for the most part, it should be as simple as possible. He said/she said will usually suffice. Obviously, we should avoid adverbs. If you need to use an adverb to describe the delivery of a line, then the line is wrong and needs to be rewritten. However, I do think that some sort of action (when connected with dialogue) can be very effective in revealing character. Once again, this is an acting exercise. What would your character do while she was delivering the line: “Well, I obviously can’t wear white, now can I?” What action would the character make to reveal her mood? Would she slam her hand down on a table? Would she roll her eyes and sigh? Would she spin around and storm out of the room? The writer can make a choice here that will reveal quite a bit about the character.
The ultimate challenge all writers face when writing dialogue is figuring out how realistic it should be. Real life conversations are full of interruptions and changes of subject. The characters often repeat themselves, and they often don’t listen to one another. They speak at the same time. A bit of this in written dialogue is great, but too much is distracting. You are, after all, writing something that will most likely be read silently by one person, and even though you can have two or more characters chatting away, what you’re really trying to create is a sense of reality for the reader.
I am experimenting a bit more with reality in dialogue in my current book, and I’m finding it tricky. I’d like to know your thoughts on the subject. How realistic is your dialogue? What are your challenges? Are there any writers you think are great at dialogue?
Photo note: Plato and Aristotle engage in dialogue in Raphael’s 16th-century fresco masterpiece The School of Athens