Dialogue: it’s wonderful. When your characters speak, your readers are engaged. There’s something great about turning the page to find a full page of dialogue waiting. There’s something magnetic about characters’ words. Our eyes are drawn the brakes in paragraphs, the quotation marks, the chance to hear the characters’ thoughts expressed in their own words. Dialogue is fabulous for the reader. It can be a disaster for the writer.
I believe the best thing you can do to improve dialogue in your work is listen.
Listen a lot, to all kinds of people. Listen and observe the ways people communicate with one another. Not just the words they use, but how they structure them. How they incorporate their bodies into their speech, the cadence of their speech, their various turns of phrase. I know this sounds a little creepy. Also, I realize it plays into one of the biggest writer cliches of all time. You know the one I’m talking about: WRITER = silent, eavesdropping, socially inept wallflower.
“Who’s that girl lurking around, not talking to anybody?”
“With the big moleskin journal her purse?”
“She’s a writer.”
Don’t be that girl. Or do, if that’s your thing. If not, there are less creepy options for people-listening (okay, they’re still a little creepy).
Go the park and listen to the people around you. Pretend to be reading in a coffee shop or using your smartphone at the airport, and settle in for some listenin’. Be sneaky about it, if you must. Yes, I’m telling you to listen in on other people’s lives. And pay attention! Note how they speak, how they relate, the ways in which they make their ideas understood. Listen to accents and the various ways people choose to frame their sentences.
Then, think about what you’ve heard (yep, it gets weirder). Consider why people talk the way they do, what influences their mannerisms and their word choices. Listen closely to the stories people tell. How they begin and end, how they pace themselves in their story-telling. These are the details that will legitimize your dialogue, and make the conversations come alive on the page.
You think I’m a total creeper. I get it. Stop judging me and try it. Listen. You’ll see what I mean.
My next big thought about dialogue: in writing dialogue, you are speaking. You are not writing how people speak. You are not writing words that represent speech. You are speaking.
The words start in your brain, flow down past your tongue, through your arms, into your fingers, and onto the page. They don’t stop for processing. They move just as fast as they would if they were flying out of your mouth.
Let me say it again: You are not writing the way that people speak. You are speaking. You can edit later. When writing dialogue, just let it flow. When you don’t let it flow naturally, you receive vague, infuriating criticisms from your readers. Statements like:
“I don’t know, I mean, I liked it, but the dialogue just wasn’t believable. It was unnatural.”
“Unnatural how? Like, what do you mean?”
“It was just kinda wooden,” your brilliant reader says. “Hard to read. It made sense, don’t get me wrong. It moved the story along. The characters said what they needed to say, but it didn’t seem like they were really talking. I couldn’t hear them.”
“Also, question: the guy from Boston and the Hawaiian guy—”
You suppress the desire to roll your eyes, interjecting: “Jake and Akoni.”
“Sorry, Akoni, is a professional ukulele player who’s lived in Hawaii all his life, right? And Jake’s a college kid from Boston.”
Well, at least she got that much out of it.
“Yes,” you reply, “What about them?”
“They wouldn’t talk the same.”
You pause, wondering what she’s getting at.
“Okay, but,” you counter, “the story’s not about their heritage. Also, I don’t want to write cliches. Are you saying I should add in some ‘wicked awesomes’? Some ‘alohas’ all down the page?”
She smiles as if something is funny and shakes her head. “No. I’m just saying where they’re from affects how they talk. How fast they talk, what words they use, what kind of stuff they talk about. Somebody from Boston isn’t going to tell a story the same way a Hawaiian dude does. You know what I’m saying? I mean, have you actually talked to someone from Hawaii?”
You’re feeling less and less interested in this conversation. “Don’t be racist.”
“What? I’m talking about observation! If you’re going to write it, you should know it. You should listen to some Hawaiian people.”
You’re starting to wonder why you let this girl read your story at all. It seems like she totally missed the point.
“Okay,” you say, ready to be done, “cool. So, make Akoni more Hawaiian and Jake more Bostonian. Got it.”
“First of all, his name is Akoni, he’s from Kauai, and he’s a pro ukulele player. I don’t think you can get much more Hawaiian. You just have to let him talk! And Jake too. In their voices, not yours. Second of all, are you mad right now?”
“No,” you say. “No. I’m just ready to be done talking about this. Let’s talk about something else.”
“You need to learn to take criticism.”
Outrageous thing to say. How dare she. “Okay. No. I just want to talk about something else.”
Not really, you realize. Not at all. In fact, you do need to learn to take criticism better. Also, you need to listen to more Hawaiian people talking.
So, in conclusion: don’t be too creepy, but do listen to the people around you. Learn from them. Write dialogue as if you are speaking, and worry about editing later. Above all, let your characters speak. If you can get out of the way and let your character’s speak, the dialogue will be genuine and natural. Your characters will reveal truth you never expected.
For example, I’m thinking we need to do a post on the art of giving and receiving criticism. Also, apparently, I’ve got a thing for Hawaii right now. And why shouldn’t I? It is Hawaii, after all.