Writing dialogue is a wildly variable experience for me.  In a draft, I can whiz along thinking I am AWESOME…and, for putting the mess down on paper, I am.  Does it always read that way when I pick it up to revise?  Definitely not.

I found this article in the New York Times–along with the corresponding podcast segment–about trends in slang. While the article isn’t about writing dialogue, I do think it informs the subject.

A writer is supposed to manipulate language in order to make strong, easily recognizable (and memorable) characters.  Is it a matter of what the character actually says or is it more about the speech tags and descriptive material outside the quotation marks?  Speech pattern idiosyncrasies can be important, but it isn’t necessary to write everything out as it might sound:  think Huck Finn on steroids.

When I took my first creative writing class the teacher asked us to go sit alone at a coffee shop or restaurant and eavesdrop on conversations.  I was told this would give me a sense of dialogue.  What a load of hooey.

Conversations we have with people in the real world don’t usually work in a piece of fiction.  Why?  We ramble on and on, weaving in and around the topic.  A tangent here.  A tangent there.  In a piece of fiction all dialogue has a specific purpose.  We have to decide what the purpose of the whole scene is in relation to the story.  How does it move us forward?  Then in that context we can revamp the dialogue to follow that purpose.  [It sounds too calculating, doesn’t it?]

What I have since learned on my own about dialogue (through much darkness and gnashing of teeth):

  1. TV shows (fictional, not talk shows or reality TV).  Listening–not watching–helps develop an awareness of moving scene to scene.  Because you are not seeing it, you can tell what has to be accomplished outside of the dialogue in order to get from point A to point B.
  2. Comic strips are helpful.  A writer must get the point across in a very tight space–even if it is part of a larger story arc–with limited dialogue.
  3. Read.  [As if that was a surprise!]  Find scenes in books or stories where you admire the dialogue–whether it is snappy or moving or whatever.  Find out why it works so well for you.

Well, that’s my two cents–not much, but it’s all I’ve got.  May your fictional conversations find a shorter path on the learning curve than mine…


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