We talk most of the time – except for when we’re not. The gift of language is part of our existence. We communicate with words far more often and easily than we do through writing or even through an expression like a glare or a smile. And yet much of the time, in conversation as in life, things are not what they seem. Words don’t necessarily mean what you think they do, or what they mean when you’re writing narrative prose. That’s because in dialog the words themselves are colored by the people who are using them.
First, a definition: Dialog is characterized by conversation between two or more people. (Think of the word ‘two’ in various languages: deo, due, dos, deux). A monolog, on the other hand, means ‘one’ – it’s one person’s internal thought process (“To be or not to be, that is the question…”). In films, a monolog is often the “voice over.”
Great dialog has to sound realistic, but when you read it or hear it, you’ll see that it’s more subtle than “real” conversations are. Written dialog is not actually how people talk – it’s your interpretation of a conversation. It has to be purposeful to your characters’ motivation and to the story itself. If you listen carefully to other peoples’ conversations, you’ll realize that they usually don’t respond directly to a question. People usually have a mysterious inner life that may be reacting completely differently to the words that they are using. For example, a young person may be thinking, “What a crazy old coot! What does he know about skateboarding?” If you’re writing a scene where the kid is thinking that, you don’t have to tell us, but you would show it in his terse, rude response to being questioned by an elderly professor.
If your characters are eating or watching television while they’re talking, one of them may be more interested in food or watching television than in the dialog, and the other one might be frustrated by this. But they would not say “I am frustrated.” They might say, “Turn that down!” or “Want more cake?” (sarcastically). If they are gazing into each other’s eyes, their conversation would sound different; more intense.
Avoid writing dialog where a character describes exactly what they’re feeling. Very few people ever do that. Even the words “I love you” need to be used sparingly in a romance: conflict, action, description, or humor can convey the emotion more interestingly. That’s because most of us try to avoid being hurt or embarrassed, and it’s usually hard to drag out from someone else what they’re really feeling. When I watch “Friends” I’m always taken aback at how comfortable and safe those guys are with each other. “Are you okay?” “No, I feel awful – he doesn’t love me…” Does anyone really say that? In “Friends” it works mostly because it’s so unlikely that they’d confess to a ridiculous crush or a bad sleepover that it’s humorous. Most people use cynicism, lies, humor, and defensiveness to protect their feelings. What would your character use? Let them speak for themselves. You might be surprised at what comes out of their mouths. The tone might convey what they’re really feeling, while they actually say something completely different.
To write great dialog you need to know your character so well that what they say flows from their mouths absolutely naturally. There can be nothing jarring in a single word they utter. The personality of each character has to shine through in each voice, distinct from one another’s.
Pacing is important as well – your characters breathe and respond and feel. Let that come through in the words they use to share their thoughts and emotions.Your voice is like your face: it reveals more about your personality than you have any idea!
Fun Writing Practice – Listen to people talking
Eavesdropping is crucial to writing great dialog. I’ve found that one of the best places to eavesdrop is on a train, where you can be looking out of the window and listening to a conversation going on in the seat behind you without the conversers knowing. Supposedly, J.D. Salinger went to a local coffee shop to listen to the cadence of teens talking to one another – they completely ignored him, which allowed him to really hear the flow of their voices, not just the words themselves.
To get a sense of this flow, you need to let the words drift through you a bit. Don’t focus on their meaning, but instead let what the person is ‘really’ saying come to you, through their tone, their pitch, their quaver. Did you read the novel “Dune” by Frank Hebert? The most fascinating concept in that book is the power of ‘voice’ to actually make someone do something against their will. Hebert’s premise was more interesting than hypnosis, because of the complexity involved in training one’s voice as a martial art.
Eavesdropping is one of the most underestimated writing tools. Do it all the time, wherever you are. Standing in line, checking grocery shelves, listening to the radio… let go of the idea that you’re trying to learn something or find out something from the words, and instead let the music of the voices and the hidden meaning behind the words come to you. Also, listen especially to the two-part music – the “Oh, yeah,” and “Really?” and “Mmm.”
Also, without looking at the person who’s talking, try to imagine what she’s wearing, where he’s from, what their religion or political beliefs might be. Especially try to imagine what their shoes look like, just from listening to their voices. (This is a fun game to play with kids too.)
Eavesdrop – or listen attentively to conversations around you – for a whole week. At parties, at a family dinner, in the classroom, at a restaurant, on the bus, on the subway. Eavesdrop till it becomes a writing habit.
- an unopened letter
- quiet time
- sweet peaches
- swimming in a mountain lake in autumn
- vintage sunglasses
- painting in oils
- discovering the cove
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