The catalyst for this post was a recent musing about “How Do You Create Realistic Dialogue?” on the Creative Writing for Me blog.
At the time I was reworking a chapter from Wolfie that’s nearly all dialogue. Almost 30 manuscript pages of nearly all dialogue. The warning lights were flashing: It’s too long! It’ll put readers to sleep! Readers want action action action, and talk is not action!
Aside: That “readers won’t like it” mantra gets embedded in our heads. It’s not just editors we have to talk back to: it’s ourselves.
But full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking.
So how to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting? Dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another?
Listen to people talk. Listen to yourself talk. Listen to the self-talk that goes on inside your head. Pay attention to how they talk as well as what they’re saying. Some people speak carefully, weighing every word. Others rush headlong into a sentence and don’t get to the end till five minutes later. In a conversation of more than two people, there’s usually one who says almost nothing. People use words to evade and conceal as well as to communicate.
Pay attention to the interactions. People in conversation react to each other. Sometimes it’s obvious: one person interrupts another, or two people complete each other’s sentences. Other times it’s subtle: one person has something to say but holds back, maybe waiting for the right opening, maybe from self-doubt. Or one person has zoned out of the conversation completely and is just itching to get out of there.
Read everything aloud. I read everything aloud, even narrative passages, even essays and reviews, but with dialogue and monologue (like the thoughts swirling inside a character’s head) it’s crucial. I read my long conversational chapter aloud to my writers’ group, Because of its length I did it in two parts. To my surprise and delight, they weren’t bored.
Let it flow. My dialogue usually starts when I point two or more characters at each other and let them talk. In first-draft mode I let them go on, and on and on and on. Often it’s not till they’ve gone on for a while that they get to the point, and often I don’t recognize it until they get there.
Shape your dialogue. People in books, plays, movies, and TV shows generally don’t talk like people you overhear on the bus or at the grocery store, but their conversations still sound “realistic.” You the writer have to actively distill the way people really talk into dialogue that sounds natural but gets to the point more efficiently than any real-life conversation. This takes practice, and a lot of it. Here are some things to keep in mind.
• What do you want this scene or this bit of dialogue to accomplish? Usually it’ll be more than one thing: disclose a bit of information, reveal something about a character, show how the relationship between two characters is developing, etc.
• Even more important, what does each of the speakers want to accomplish? What does each want from the other(s)? Send each character into the conversation with a goal. My very long conversation involved several characters, all of whom already knew most of the others. I had an agenda — Amira has to reveal to Shannon a crucial bit of backstory about someone who isn’t there — and so did each character. Giles, a successful artist, wants to encourage Shannon, a chronic procrastinator, to keep painting. Shannon is trying not to fall in love with Amira. Amira is troubled by a traumatic family event. Jay wants to watch the Celtics game on TV.
• People are not talking heads, even when we’re sitting at the supper table or watching TV. We fidget with our clothing, we gaze off into the distance. In theater, film, and TV, the actors show us all this. In a story or a novel, the writer has to do the showing. Pay as much attention to what your characters do as to what they say.
• People often talk in slang, sentence fragments, and anything other than neatly constructed sentences. Punctuation conventions are generally aimed at producing neatly constructed sentences. Beware the editor what wants to punctuate your dialogue according to The Chicago Manual of Style or the precepts of some grammar guru. At the same time, you needn’t rely entirely on punctuation to shape your dialogue the way you want readers to hear it. You’ve got other tools in your toolkit. Pay attention to how words sound, and how sentence structure affects what words are emphasized. (When a writer overuses italics, it’s often because she’s not paying enough attention to the pacing and cadence of her sentences.) Where you put the “tag” — the he said/she said — in a piece of dialogue can have a big effect on how your readers hear it.
So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.