We were talking about dialogue in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins last night, and I thought I’d pass along a few of my suggestions for how to hone your dialogue skills.
1. Eavesdrop. Listen to people talking in coffee shops, in lines, in restaurants, on the metro, everywhere. Listen for content, yes, but also the rhythms of speech. How do people express themselves? What words, what patterns of speech? Steve and I were at a restaurant in Baltimore and overheard a scruffy man at the bar say to another, “I ate horsemeat in France.” We spent at least half an hour talking about where one might go with that story! There’s a great website for overheard information, Overheard in New York (I know, what better city for eavesdropping?), that has all these great—supposedly true—comments that were overheard in the streets of New York. The best have been compiled into a book now.
2. Try writing a screenplay or a play—or even just a few scenes—where everything must be conveyed ONLY through spoken dialogue and action. This is tough and eye-opening. No description, no interior thought, no narrator…your mind focuses on dialogue pretty quickly. I wrote a screenplay several years ago, and though nothing ever happened with it as a movie, afterwards, dialogue in my fiction improved immensely.
3. Tape a long conversation between you and a friend/spouse and then transcribe it, starting after about ten minutes in when you’ve settled into the flow of talking. See for yourself what the rhythms of speech look like on paper. See how distinct your style and pattern of speech is from your friend. It’s great, especially, if you can choose someone of a different gender. Men and women often speak differently—examine these differences. (For example, men don’t use words like “really” as often—“he’s really busy.” Men may be more direct: “I was wondering if you’d mind keeping your dog inside?” vs. “Can you keep your dog inside?” Maybe even, “Keep your dog inside.”) Take your transcript and edit it—tighten it up and make it interesting; how can you cut through the tedious parts to get to the heart of the matter? Of course, if you really have no qualms, tape two people who don’t know you’re taping them…you’ll probably get something even more natural sounding!
4. Copy out (literally, by hand) the dialogue from a book/writer you admire who writes good dialogue. Study how the writer makes that dialogue work. Are there patterns of speech? What does it sound like if you read it out loud? How do the characters interact? Where did the writer shortcut through information?
5. Speaking of reading out loud, I think that’s one of the best self-editing tools around—reading your work out loud—and this is especially true of dialogue. Your ears will catch things your eye won’t; your voice will feel clunky and awkward if your dialogue is clunky and awkward and not like spoken language. I always read everything out loud at least once and wouldn’t consider my work finished until I have.
6. Write practice monologues of your characters explaining their actions: you’ll get a feel for how they think. Once you know how someone thinks and how they explain themselves, you’ll have a better feel for who they are as people…therefore, how they express themselves in their own words. What are those words? I was having a hard time getting a feel for one of my characters in my novel in progress, Prodigal Daughters, so I wrote a monologue in her voice. Very helpful!