Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writing dialogue that sings

**snitched as always from a DeviantArtist. This time, delillama.**

I've always been a reader. In kindergarten (yes, kindergarten) I started reading the Little House on the Prairie series. Books and series uncounted followed, and in the past couple years, it's been the Twilight Saga, the Darkest Powers trilogy and many many MANY more YA paranormal novels. (Have any suggestions?? I'm looking for my next 'literary love.')

One of the things to turn me off in a book, and stop me reading before hitting THE END?

The dialogue.
If it jumps off wrong, feels contrived, or just doesn't sound like something a real person would say...Sorry Author, but I am done. There are too many other shiny, pretty books in the YA sea for me to waste my time or money on a book like that.

So, as writers, how do we make our character's dialogue sing? How do we make it timely enough to sound like real teens would say it now, but not date our work so badly that ten years from now it won't be relevant?

Well, in my upperclassman level Creative Writing course in my first year of college, my professor gave my favorite writing assignment EVER. "Realistic dialogue." Her homework? EAVESDROP. That's right, in the 80s and 90s those of us trying to sound cool called it dipping, it's what we'd suggested in the Writer's Corner here on OFY. My professor gave us permission to listen in on other peoples' conversations. "Take notes if you can," she said. So, I did. Fraternity boys playing a video game and talking about a road trip. I included the video game noises, their swear words...all of it. And got an A+ out of it, too.

So, go on, be sneaky. If you have teens, linger outside the door (and away from the light pouring beneath it. You don't want your shadow to give you away *wink*). Or go to a mall and pretend to browse near teens. The things they say when they think no one is listening...

Real, spoken dialogue has a give and take, an ebb and flow. Words are put together certain ways. Some words are used, other are not--which can give a definite nod to your locale. Somethings are never said by boys/girls. Somethings are said in lieu of what they mean. Kids do swear. The list of lessons learned goes on and on.

Another tip for making your dialogue sound real? Read it out loud.

Agents and editors say this all the time. Read it out loud. (repeated bold for emphasis) If it doesn't sound right, then it isn't. So how do we deal with the "they say what I want them to" syndrome? Drag your friends into it. Assign friends characters from your piece, and another person listen. Then you hear your dialogue from other speakers, and they will stumble if it isn't right. And you have a guinea pig to squeal for you when you ask them what they thought, what they got out of the conversation.

Dialogue is a great tool to show character, to give information, to move the plot forward. If a picky reader, like me, parts the pages of your book and doesn't like that dialogue, it can also be the tool that buries your book back on the shelf. And none of us want that.

So, work with your dialogue. Listen to real conversation. Read your character's conversations aloud. Sometimes it takes listening to make it sing.


  1. Great post! I'm a big proponent of reading out loud, but doing a table reading out loud...that's an awesome idea. Terrifying. But awesome.

  2. Ooh, I love the idea of a table reading!! Great post.

  3. I so agree with the reading OUT LOUD. It makes a huge difference. And listening to teenagers - hilarious and frightening *shivers* =D.

  4. great tips! I love eavesdropping on teens. I say it's for "research," but it's really quite amusing too :)

  5. Role playing sounds like fun. And eavesdropping...hee. It can not only breath life to written dialog, but brighten your day with humor. Great post.

  6. Ha! I'm glad you've given us permission to eavesdrop on teens. I recently discovered that I can listen to our teen neighbors from our garage attic when they chat outside. I felt like a stalker even listening for a few minutes. Maybe I should move my writing desk up there...

  7. What an excellent post! I'm writing a YA novel right now and dialogue is my biggest concern; it's been a while since I was 16 so I worry that what I'm writing sounds stilted or stale. So thank you for this. It never occurred to me to eavesdrop. Will turn my iPod off next time I'm on the bus!


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