Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How Do You Write Dialog?

We receive a lot of questions about writing at LegendFire. How do I ...? What do you think about this idea? Am I doing this right? What's the proper grammar rule for ...? Recently, however, I've noticed that the most-repeated question over the years has been, "How do I write dialog?"

This question has always struck me as humorous and, honestly, astonishing. It's like the "What does your watch face look like?" kind of question, where someone says to you, "Cover your wristwatch with your hand and describe your watch face."

How many times a day do people look at their watches? Yet every time I've seen this experiment done, most people are invariably stumped.

So it must be with writing dialog. How many conversations do we take part in everyday, much less hear to our left and our right throughout the waking hours? Most of us are continually surrounded with the sounds of conversation and the visible signs of body language. We even have conversations on candy:

So how does a beginning writer capture conversation on their pages?

1. Actively listen. As in: "What does your watch face look like?" Go sit in a busy place (where you won't be caught eavesdropping) and really listen. Don't think, don't analyze, turn off the phone (ironic tip, that), and just listen. How does a conversation evolve from small matters to hitting the heart of someone's problem? How do the speakers stop and start, hesitate, stutter, hammer their points home? How can you tell if they are nervous, angry, in love?

2. Note the body language that accompanies a conversation. Actively observe.

3. Read. How do the pros capture dialog? Actively read. Note how the author of your favorite book filters through the chaos of real-life conversation to make dialog useful for their storyline. If you're writing a Romance era romance, you'd better be reading a lot of Jane Austen. Her characters never respond with, "Okay."

4. Practice. If you're nervous about writing dialog, write a script. Forget the exposition and the action descriptions for a while. You're obviously comfortable with those. So write your story in script format. Minimal scene direction. Meaningful dialog that moves the plot-line forward.

5. Read what you've written. Aloud. Really. Can a human tongue easily and naturally pronounce what you just wrote? Given the era and subject you're writing about, do average people really use those words on a daily basis? Remember, you actively listened already. You should be able to answer that question.

These are the same tips I find myself repeating over and over again when LegendFire members ask, "How do I ...?" Have I missed anything? Does anyone have any tips to add? Because what works for me may not work for others. How did you learn to write dialog?


Rhonda Parrish said...

Those are really great ideas, and I agree with them so much. My husband constantly teases me about how much time I spend doing them, in fact. Especially #1.


~ Rhonda Parrish

Court Ellyn said...

Delighted you stopped by!

I'm such an introvert that I have to keep reminding myself to pull my head out of the deep dark cave that is my brain and actually do these things. Stop being polite and timid and eavesdrop already! :D So, I guess I'm preaching to myself as much as to the beginners. It's good to have the reminder on occasion.