Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk. Rant, whisper, inform. Stutter, harangue, order. Insult, complain, gossip. Coo. Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night. Talk talk.
If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, just the way I say it.
So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know? Oof, that’s a terrible take.
I guess I have to clean up my speech for the written page because that sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.
My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like mine, as if my quirky phrasing had been loaned to my characters. Too many words, correct grammar, a spiraling conversation that takes the reader way out of the story. I talk like that too, monologues that explain the history of my world before I get to the point, detracting from the topic. The delete button is my most trusted tool when I write dialogue, and passages are much improved when I wield it with vigor.
As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can apply to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses and motive becomes apparent.
I also read, as any writer does. A character pulls down the mask on his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.
[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”
“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”
“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”
“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”
“I’ll give you all of it!”
[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]
The dialogue is minimal but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.
Applying everything I know intellectually about dialogue to my writing demands a lot of time, introspection, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck that I have to haul to the scrap heap. But I’m proud of my successes. In The Tree House Mother, two teenage girls park on a hill and talk their hearts out in a crucial scene, the chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. At the end of the conversation both girls find that words can only tell part of their story given that even the meaning of words thought to be mutually clear is enriched by one’s experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up in tears. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.
Often it’s not what’s said but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires me to trust my readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can serviceably describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience grasps her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue; it’s hard to find a better mentor.
My most recent WIP is Where Did Mama Go? It takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers, so a great deal of the story is dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or mysterious, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s raw, visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by certain scenes. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.
I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth. Talk talk, just say something worth reading.
Be well, friend.
This was brilliant, Sharon. In my current WIP I wrote much more dialogue than I had anticipated, but it’s just stilted words on the page right now, like if a mannequin could speak. Your post gave me a checklist of clues to look for in my dialogue and to add if/when they’re absent. Thank you!
Kelly, I usually do the same, write pages of dialogue, much of which doesn’t promote the story. Then I take big clippers and cut, cut, cut. It makes sense that we would write this way because we talk this way. Listen to speech and you hear volumes of repetition, off track comments, over wrought explanations, interrupted by a few notable statements that get to the point of the conversation. In books, we must get to the point immediately. Experience teaches you to write more concisely from the beginning, but I still go back and cut, cut.
I’m pleased that this post has been helpful to you.
Dialog is one of the things I believe I do well when writing. This was not always the case, though. One of the things I did to improve my dialog writing abilities was I started writing scripts for stage plays. In a script, you have to tell the entire story through dialog so you have to become more efficient and precise with the words and you have to make them sound “right” because the reality is that someone will be actually speaking them on stage.
Another method I used to improve my dialog was I actually read it out loud. Amazing how awkward some things sound even if they look good on paper.
The biggest difficulty I have with dialog now comes when I am trying to write characters who speak differently… maybe an accent, maybe using some kind of broken English. I tend to speak a plain vanilla “American” accent despite my proximity to the strange sounds of New York City and Philadelphia… my characters tend to end up with a similarly vanilla sound to them as well, with word choice being the thing that makes their background or ethnicity more obvious.
Rob, I’ve written nearly 100 skits, based on Bible stories. I taught Sunday School for 25 years and the textbooks were dry, the archaic language unnavigable for children without lots of explanation and interpretation. So I re-wrote nearly every story in skit format, relying entirely on speech between characters to tell familiar stories. It solved many problems for my students and it taught me how to write dialogue that says something – my unexpected bonus.
As for reading out loud – I’ve read every book I’ve written out loud, confounding my husband until he finally got used to seeing me jabbering at the computer. And I always advise writers to read their work aloud, not just dialogue, but everything. You note all kinds of things – repeated words, unnecessary comments, plot that’s MIA, lost secondary plots, inconsistent timelines, dead characters inexplicably revived. It gives less for my critique groups to trouble shoot.
As for “accent” dialogue – it can be a challenge to sound authentic. I listen to people talk and later write what I’ve heard in my computer journal, just to hold on to that accent or the ethnic voice or unusual phrase. I can later use that conversation to add authenticity to dialogue.
I’m used to getting to the point – I suppose that’s one of the plusses of growing up in the midwest. People are pretty direct. That can give me problems in writing as well, because sometimes my characters can come off sounding clipped, and not give enough information. Now that I live in the southern U.S., I am surrounded by natives who will wander around a topic for ages before landing on the point. I’m trying to learn a little of that, as one of the characters in my next book will be from the deep south.
Great post, Sharon. The insertion of emotion where there are no words is no mean feat.
Kris, I also tend to write dialogue that sounds amazingly like my own – now how did that happen? I speak somewhat formally. You can hear the correct spelling and appropriate commas. But most people don’t speak the way I do. I’ve had to learn to listen carefully and write speech the way that people actually talk. Most people will say, “Her and I went to the beach.” Lots of people say, “I don’t got nothing to show for it.” The blood of English teachers is curdling but writers need to get that inaccurate speech into our work because it’s how people sound.
We are also curt, speaking in incomplete sentences. Writers need to include the shortcuts in dialogue but jettison the ums and ahs.
Dialect can be a hoot to write – it’s identifiable, expressive, and inventive. But you have to be careful not to write a parody if you want to be authentic. How lucky that you live in the South – grab that notebook and write down all the dialogue you hear, then pour it into your book.
The hardest is to write emotion into dialogue without relying on exclamation marks. Also a challenge: to have a character say something that is opposite of what he knows or feels, a deceit that’s obvious to the reader, but not to the other character. Think how often someone has lied to you – but you only get the lie days later. Everyone around you has been laughing for hours at how you were had.
(Happened to me recently and my feelings are still hurt – I’ll use my humiliation in a story one day.)
Reblogged this on kristopiastudios and commented:
Beautiful post on Today’s Author by Sharon Bonin-Pratt about dialogue and the “spaces” in between.
Wow! Thank you, Kris, I am honored.
I miss that story. I heard (from Diana maybe?) that you would be submitting again. I hope so!
I’m submitting Mama – which story did you mean?
And thank you for the vote of confidence.
Oh, I can completely identify with this! I know I talk differently from most people, I use a vocabulary that most people around me don’t tend to use (a side effect of having spent more time reading than conversing over the years, I expect). So I eavesdrop on others and listen with interest and amusement at the turns of phrases and slang which I’d never use in real life, but which would be perfect in a story.
Thanks so much for sharing this post! There are some great tips, and I wish you all the luck with querying your novel.
I see you’re from Australia, so your speech will be unique to your country and you probably have much opportunity to hear very interesting dialogue I won’t hear in the states. Reading some of the other Australian blogs, you have specific vocabulary and idioms. This is what I love about writing dialogue – listening to and trying to capture those personal voices.
I’m glad you enjoyed this post and hope you’ll stop by again.