Friday, February 9, 2018

Writing Amazing, Authentic Dialogue--Hard to Learn, Vital to Know

Writing dialogue should be easy, right?  Most of us talk.  We text, we email, we use words in conversation all the time.  We listen (sometimes) to other people talking.  Dialogue runs through our thoughts all day, every day.  So why isn't dialogue on the page just a matter of listening well and copying down what we hear?
Literature has different rules than real life--obviously.  So dialogue on the page also has different rules than spoken dialogue. 
It makes sense.  What we read must present high stakes, tension, and not give it all away--otherwise, why would we keep reading?
Next week, I'm teaching an eight-week online class on writing authentic, amazing dialogue for fiction and memoir.  The class was born from a one-day workshop, which often left writers wanting more.  They understood the basic tenets of writing good dialogue but they wanted to practice, get feedback, and get better at it.  So the online class will cover both the mechanics of dialogue--how dialogue is created, crafted, and used; when it's not used (there are real rules about this!) and when it's most effective in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction books--and placement.   
Placement of dialogue is important.  Dialogue speeds up your story's pace.  It's faster than description, for instance.  But too much dialogue in a chunk creates the fast-train-ride that you may not want just then.  So dialogue needs to become a conscious tool in the writer's hands.

This week, I wanted to share one of the writing exercises we'll be using in the class.  It helps tune your ear to the essential difference between real-life spoken dialogue and dialogue on the page.  It also trains you to hear subtext, then begin to use it effectively in your own writing. 

Listening for Subtext 
In real conversations, subtext, or undercurrent, what's not being said, the meaning or emotion underlying the talk, is presented by visual aids:  gestures, a facial expression, looking away or down, movement.  It's also revealed via the setting around the conversation.   
Imagine a bad date.  One person is eager, the other totally turned off.  Although the conversation itself, the stripped-down dialogue, might stay polite, even pleasant, there are all kinds of visual cues as to what's really happening, right?
In writing, you don't have these visual cues.  You have to create them on the page.  You can use all the same tools (gestures, etc.), but even more important are the actual words you use in your dialogue.   So there are two steps:  learning to hear and see subtext in real conversations, so you get good at noticing this undercurrent, then learning to craft your dialogue so it's evident on the page.   
Here's one small example out of many of the craft skills you need:  Placing the reveal.  What's a reveal?  In dialogue, it's where people say what they really mean.  If you "reveal" too soon in your written dialogue, or say too much true stuff, you lose tension.  Why?  Because there's no subtext.  So "reveal" dialogue (where people really say what they mean) is reserved for special times in the written dialogue scene.
Another example of a craft skill we'll learn and practice:  Writing in "beats."  Beats are where people pause, interrupt, or change the subject.  That's increasing subtext, because it signifies an emotional shift.  Maybe the topic is getting too hot and the speaker shifts away from it abruptly.  Ever have this happen in a real-life conversation?  It's used a lot by novelists and memoirists to show the subtext.   But where you place a beat is the key to making it work.
In early drafts of a scene, we often work with the just obvious level:  text.  We're still telling ourselves the story, rather than bringing in the subtle layers.  We're writing close to real-life conversation, which is what most writers begin with.  There are few beats and the dialogue will often contain too much "revealed" information, at that early stage. 

In revision, we begin to craft it.  We get more subtle and we look at placement for the "reveal." 

I find it's helpful during this crafting stage to find a published book or story in your genre.  Turn to a page or two of dialogue that you admire.  Study where the "reveal" is placed, how much subtext you perceive, what kind of beats are present and where.  What's the placement of this dialogue in the overall chapter?    

It helps you build your listening and writing skills, but it takes time and practice.  Try it more than once, if you can.    

Your dialogue will begin to explore what's not being said--and that's where the true literary conversations take place.
If you want to try one of the online class exercises, I'll include it below.  It's an eavesdropping exercise that tunes your ear and eye to subtext.

This Week's Writing Exercise

1.  Find a busy place to sit for a while with your writer's notebook and take notes.  Cafes are good.  Or bus stations or doctor's offices or airports.

2.  Eavesdrop.  Take notes on how people talk.  Write down all the jigs and jags of human speech.

3.  Pay attention to the rhythms you're hearing, how many times people interrupt or talk around the topic or use partial sentences.

4.  After an hour or so, or however much time you can spend, take what you've written and read it over.  Underline the best three lines, the ones that speak about something that not's being said.

5.  Using one of these, begin a freewrite for 20 minutes (no editing) for a scene from your book.  Write the overheard line of dialogue at the top of your page and start adding responses until you've crafted a conversation.

6.  Look it over.  Decide what's not being said (the subtext).  Is it a strong current under your characters' words?

And if you'd like to find out more about my online dialogue class, click here to be taken to the Loft's website.

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