Friday, August 7, 2020

Honing Your Dialogue-Writing Skills--And Learning When Not to Use It

I love writing dialogue. I've taken classes on how to craft it, where to put it to break up and add rhythm to a scene. I see dialogue-writing skills needed across the board now, not just in fiction but also memoir and nonfiction.

Dialogue isn't easy to write well. Last week I talked about it being one of the red flags that editors use to spot an amateur writer. Maybe it's because beginning writers use dialogue more as a vehicle to deliver information. They don't understand its primary purpose: to increase tension and emotion in a scene.

I learned dialogue-writing many years ago, via a two-step method that serves me well today.

Step 1: Learn to listen to how human beings talk--and how they don't listen to each other.

Step 2: Learn to pare down the real-life dialogue into dialogue that works on the page.

Learning to Listen
My early writing teachers gave an assignment that I still use. Go to a place where people are talking and where you can eavesdrop. I had a favorite cafe. I took my laptop and scribed the amazing lines of dialogue that bounced around me there. I also scribed dialogue in doctors' waiting rooms, train stations, on airplanes, and anywhere else people were talking.

Harder to do in covid time, but still possible.

The more I did this, the more I noticed how little we really listen to each other.

My favorite example was at a Thanksgiving dinner where I was a guest. I can't remember the exact words (I couldn't write at the table), but here's the gist of it.

College-aged girl: Mom, Dad, I have something important to tell you.

Mom: Sally, please pass the peas to your brother. He's not eating enough. You know he's got a game next week.

Dad: You'll never believe what I saw today.

Teenage son: The guys are getting together tonight, and I wondered . . .

College-age girl: It's pretty important. I don't know how to tell you. . .

Four people with four different trains of thought. Very few intersections. If you listen to conversations, you'll find this happens pretty often. One of the most important aspects of dialogue is that two people talking rarely intersect.

And, dialogue mostly reveals what's not being said. The interesting dialogue, that is. It hints at boiling undercurrents.

Listening can also teach you how we talk: how we use contractions (don't instead of do not) in conversation, how we interrupt each other frequently, how often we change the subject, how we use slang and dialect. Scribe these too.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue, overheard in a doctor's office, was "You can't use turnips for that!" I still haven't found a way to use it in my stories.

Paring Down Real-Life Dialogue
Step two is harder. Literary dialogue doesn't give all the information and fillers that occur in real-life dialogue. So it has to be pared down.

1. Omit anything that's just passing time--unless it hints at underlying emotion. For example, I take out any "hi" and "hello" and "how are you?" and "bye, now"--these are essential social lubricants but they just fill space. Which readers don't enjoy, in books.

2. Change all your verbs to contractions--"I am" goes to "I'm"--unless your character is not a native speaker of English. Contractions sound natural; not using them tells the reader that the character is stilted, uncomfortable.

3. Shorten sentences in dialogue. A LOT! I try to keep tension and movement in my dialogue with this rule of thumb: sentences no longer than seven words. Three to five is better.

4. Create interruption, beats, pauses, and hiccups in the dialogue. 

Remember that people often interrupt or don't answer in real-life conversations. Where can you break your dialogue into non-responses, interjections, changes of subject? This will create wonderful tension and pacing.

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