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So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 5 (Found Dialog)

In the comments section on a previous post, I promised a dialog exercise. Look at me now. Apparently, I keep a promise.

One of the easiest ways a story can fall apart (or never come together), is in the humanity of the characters. A story could be terrific conceptually, well plotted, outlined and re-outlined, read (and loved) by aunts and mothers and siblings and former 6th  grade teachers, and still be populated by characters who limp around like zombies patched together from old classmates (with the emotional depth of sock puppets).

There’s heaps of things that could be said about writing characters (and I only know some of them), but this here’s an exercise to focus on one of the bigger goofs committed by the aspiring and published alike.

I give you . . . inhuman, unbelievable, or just plain doofy dialog.

Wanna know if your characters are believably real people?  Check the dialog. Wanna know if the dialog is real? Cross check with real people.

This exercise is thieved from a teacher/writer named Tom Chiarella. But I’ve tweaked it a skootch just to legitimize my theft. Go to a public place (restaurant, bus-stop, coffee-shop, etc.). Take a notebook. Sit somewhere that gives your ears full auditory range. Listen. Attempt to copy down whatever dialog drifts your way. Keep track of the beats and rhythms of the conversations as well. Glance, but do not stare at your subjects. Give them tight, cursory descriptions.

When you’ve collected a page or two, look over what you have. You’ll notice that the dialog contains all sorts of subtexts and unstated running tensions that you understand (because you’re human and you speak English). But if you had tried to write the same scene from scratch, you would have been too overt, included too much, and heavy-handedly (nice, right?) forced your characters into the mold you had assigned to them. A real conversation shifts and moves quickly, and not just over topics. One character may assert alpha dominance on a particular subject, but then becomes immediately insecure when something else is brought up. Another character sits there, nodding and assenting, clearly not caring about anything at all. You know this. It’s obvious. How does the person talking not know?

And now for more . . .  Once you have a nice scene-length conversation, get to work editing. Try to limit yourself to cutting material only. Add no fictional dialog (yet). As a way to control (and imitate) the conversation, insert gesture and brief (brief) description. Use gesture for as much attribution as possible (little ticks can tell the reader who’s speaking more effortlessly than ‘he said’ or ‘she said’). If you do use simple attribution (as you must), then make sure that it is always contributing to the pace and rhythm rather than detracting from it.

Lastly, once it’s tight and working, start to mess with the setting. Can you believably reset the entire thing in a different location? Take something from a coffeeshop and stick it in the county dump. Two ladies you heard on the street become two women behind a counter selling donuts. Play with it even more. Change the entire subject of the conversation. How much would you have to delete or insert to make a conversation about fish a conversation about Christmas? But don’t try to change the psychologies of the characters. Character psychology is what you are trying to learn, and it is the one thing that needs to remain intact (even if everything else is in flux mode–especially if everything else is in flux mode).

Final note: the best dialog I’ve ever written (in my humble . . .) was found dialog. And yes, that means that I didn’t write it. But I found it. And as any kid can tell you, that makes it mine.


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    Camilla Allison
    June 1, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    Great advise (and fun to read, too!). I’m off to try it.

  2. at
    June 2, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    I’ll have to try this……Writing’s SO fun, but most of the time I crank out the first draft then have no idea how to edit, so stuff like this helps a LOT.

  3. at
    June 7, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Cool idea! I’ll have to try it sometime. I totally agree – dialog often seems to be what makes or breaks the story.

  4. at
    May 9, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Good stuff, fun and interesting advice, wow, the obvious, but …. I’d love to try it.

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