It Takes Time
When I was young, dialogue was my weakness. The voices around me were limited to my family, my teachers and my classmates. I only heard people talking about a limited number of things. Also, I had not yet learned how to listen.
As I grew up, I became fascinated by the people around me and how they used language. I found I’d rather hear than talk. I started working in a restaurant, which is a rich resource for characters and conversation. My co-workers and customers were always saying priceless things. I found myself guessing at what people would say next, the nature of their relationships and if they were telling the truth. I took note of gestures, timing, pauses and volume.
Now I think dialogue is one of my strengths, though I will always be a student. People continue to surprise me.
Get Your Ears in the Stream
If you plan to write about a certain type of person, you need to get in the middle of them and listen. Sometimes this is easy. If you’re writing about students and teachers, you’re already in the right place. If your characters are baristas, barbers or bus drivers, they’re easy to find. Take your ears and your notebook to them and pay attention. If your story is about the crew of a deep sea submarine, it won’t be so simple.
Fortunately, we’re in the 21st century. Audio, video and written words are easy to find. Seek out blogs, forums, articles, news footage and shows about your topic. Look for collections of jargon, trade journals and technical manuals to give yourself vocabulary. Save your favorite bits and pieces for reference.
Perhaps you don’t have a subject yet. This can be the most fun. Get to a coffee shop or a mall and be circumspect. Your dialogue will come to you. Go to the waiting room of a busy dentist, doctor or other professional just give it time. You will hear a seed for a story. I like to pretend I’m reading or writing something. Scroll absently through your phone with your ears twitching like a bunny. Your radar will pick up on something.
Don’t sit by a noisy machine. Try to park yourself where you can hear both the staff and the guests. Listen to people on the phone and imagine the other end of the conversation.
Think of how sound reflects from hard surfaces. Sometimes turning your head away from your target will turn one ear in the right direction. Cover the other ear covertly if you can and you’ll block out unwanted sounds.
Of course, respect people’s privacy. But, if they wanted privacy they wouldn’t be speaking in public.
Expand Your Characters
Once you’ve chosen the people in your dialogue, it’s time to flesh them out. Free-write, of course, on each character. Define them with a few descriptors: “new receptionist trying not to mess up" or “young man getting dumped on the phone but trying to act normal".
Now fill up a page with their voice. Let it flow. Don’t self-edit or pause to think. Be that person. Get into a rhythm. Use words they like.
Read through your free-writing and circle things that jump out. What were the best quotes? Where does it not feel natural? Identify subjects you need to research and find vocabulary that fits your character.
Do this with every person in your story, but keep it simple. Try to use only two or three main voices. Think about commonalities and conflicts. If your characters are alike and always agree with one another, your dialogue won’t pop. Find an element to argue or debate.
What is each character’s style? Do they use long or short sentences? Are they well educated with a large vocabulary or are they trying to pretend they are? Are they speaking a particular dialect? Is their speech structured by a specific occupation?
It’s best to write about who you know, so either learn about your character’s field or stick to what you’re familiar with.
He Said, She Said
You need to clearly identify the speaker of the words in quotes, but do it without being boring. Find synonyms for “said" but don’t overdo it. Don’t say “replied" unless the words are in response to another. Forcing terms like “intoned" or “verbalized" will make you sound desperate.
Using a gesture or other direction can help clarify the speaker: His head snapped up at the sound of her voice. “Excuse me?"
If your dialogue is well done, your words alone should make the speaker obvious. Each character should sound distinct. In a conversation between two people, you can simply alternate quotes for a while. Your reader will know who said what.
When in doubt, ask people to read your draft. They will tell you when they’re confused.
Remember, you’re only selecting a portion of your characters’ lives. Imagine the whole conversation, before and after. Now choose only the best, most intriguing and most revealing part to give to your readers.
Know that people often cut personal articles from their daily speech: “Going to the store. Want something?"
Don’t try to help your reader too much by squeezing information into your dialogue: “Thanks for the 17th birthday cake, my father’s girlfriend. I’ll have a third piece after I come home from the bowling alley with my classmates Jim and Joan, who are brother and sister."
Give a good description of each speaker early and then just let them speak. If they have an accent, describe it or mention their background if you can without forcing it. Then trust your reader’s imagination. Give a character a fastidious gesture at the beginning of your scene and your readers will hear their voice in a precise, fussy manner also. Be skillful with small details and your readers’ ears will follow.
Sometimes saying nothing is more powerful than speech. In response to something shocking, your character may be silent and immobile. You need write nothing more.
Are your speakers actually listening to one another? Often people are thinking of what to say next and just waiting for others to stop talking.
Leave some mystery. Start with your readers not knowing what’s going on, then gradually clue them in. This discovery process will build drama for your story.
Dialogue Inside Verse
My favorite challenge is to write a poem about a conversation. This taxes your ability to be terse and precise to the fullest. You have no syllables to waste, so you must be selective. Deliver only a few quotes and a few actions to display your point. Place your readers in the center of the action. From the words choose, make them extrapolate what happened before and hunger for what comes next. If only as an exercise, writing dialogue inside a structured verse form will force you to place each syllable wisely.
This is a challenge, but it also has its advantages. In verse, but not in prose, you can use the line-endings as a tool. If your speaker pauses or hesitates, break the like in the middle of the speech. Make the reader breathe a moment on the way to the next line. This will simulate a natural rhythm. The length of your lines and caesurae inside the lines help you create the cadence you want. You can’t do that writing paragraphs.
My favorite form is the Ten-by-Ten. Its square one-hundred syllable shape makes a good frame for two people talking, but there’s only room for a little. I use it to create a snap-shot of action. I give the reader a tiny clip of action and emotion. No wasted letters here. Just an image, some rhythm and a finish to describe a larger story.
One siphons gas from truck to bike. “Told you
Not to go to work." His friend pinches chew
From a can. “Missed one hell of a bang, though."
He screws on the lid, fills the other tank.
“Think it was C4?" He shrugs. “A tanker
Full of plastique? Naw. Fertilizer bomb."
Shakes his head. “No matter. Can’t fly over
But you can float right in. Flatten the port.
Not one filing of evidence." He coughs.
Coughs again, snorts, spits. “You’re not sick, are you?"
From Cathartes Aura on the Road from Nowhere
- Identify a group of people you want to write about. Position yourself to hear their speech. Take notes and build a dialogue about them.
- Go to a busy public place with no plan to write. Listen for the most unexpected cluster of words to come out of someone’s mouth. From that quote, craft a story.
- Write a “dialogue" without any quotations. Using only body language, facial expression, symbolism and stage direction, describe people communicating.
- Choose a structured verse form (like a haiku, sonnet or ten-by-ten) and use it to display a conversation.
- Team up with a friend. Write a dialogue using their voice. Have them do the same for you and compare. Does their version of you sound like you?