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Talking with Your Ears

As writers we strive to breathe life into our characters. Flesh them out. Make them believable, three dimensional. We concoct back stories for them, give them a particular set of values, beliefs, morals, and emotions.  They have certain physical traits: tall, skinny, brown-eyed, long-haired, pock marked, obese, young, old, male, female, etc. We surround them with other people and we give them a voice.  They need to interact and so with that voice they express themselves. Dialogue is that form of expression.

cartoon of man with talking earDialogue can be a joy or a challenge to compose.  I am one of those who personally delights in writing dialogue and therefore my writing contains much of it.  There are a few things that you should keep in mind as you commit a conversation to the page.

1. Proper grammar and sentence structure have no place in dialogue.  We are not particularly good at editing and composing our thoughts on the fly.  Our thoughts are generally flying well ahead of our tongues anyway.  We end up spitting the words out in rag-tag, catch-as-catch-can fashion, which would rarely make our English professors proud.

2. In a similar vein, the spoken conversation takes advantage of contractions, slang, cliches and sentence fragments.  We are basically lazy animals so while writers generally try to avoid over used sayings or expressions, they are much more prevalent in spoken conversation, like ready to microwave meals. Pat phrases are used in dialog because they are conveniently within reach and immediately understood by everyone else.  We take short cuts and mash words together and make words up because it is easier than trying to dredge up the proper words.

3. People interrupt and talk over each other and complete each other’s sentences. Many  people are not patient enough to wait for the other person to finish before they start talking, especially when the emotions are high. If you don’t believe me watch a public affairs show some night that has booked both liberal and conservative guests who are both trying to push their party’s agendas.

4. Listen.  This is actually the most important advice I can give.  Pay attention to the kinds of things people say, how they say them, what they don’t say. Eaves drop. Listen in on conversations on the bus, in the elevator, in the booth behind you at a restaurant.  Pay attention to the differences between young and old or how different ethnicities express themselves. I don’t mean dialect so much as expressions and phrases.

Below the same scene has been written out twice.  The first time uses what I hope is natural and believable dialogue, which therefore paints a truer picture, making it more enjoyable to read.  The second time through I have deliberately made the dialogue more proper and stilted as a contrast. See what you think.

Natural:

Pushing her cart down the aisle to the checkout lines Jamie stole a look at the magazines on the rack and ended up bumping into another cart. “Sorry. Sorry ’bout that.” The other cart was navigated by Nathan Hargrove.  He had on a Stone Ridge Rams T-shirt.

“That’s okay.  No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

“What?” she asked not quite following his quirky sense of humor.

“Never mind.  Aren’t you Jamie…” He drew out her first name.

“Peterson. Yeah. And you’re Nathan Hargrove.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and pulled down on the bottom of her shirt.  “We’re both in Mr. Hogan’s psych class. Sixth period.”

“Right. Sixth period psych.” Nathan blushed as he bobbed his head a few times. “Aren’t you friends with Tracy Diamond and—what’s her name—Ronnie Bartlett?”  Jamie nodded her head in response and waited to see how this was all going to play out.  Finally Nathan said, “Cool,” just to fill space in the conversation. Shoppers were giving them looks as they had to squeeze their carts past the chatting teens parked in the narrow aisle. After another awkward pause he said, “So hey, wanna hang out tomorrow or are you doing something else Friday?” He blushed again.

Jamie shrugged. “I guess that would be okay. Sure.  I’ll have to check with my parents, though.” This time it was Jamie’s turn to blush. “Is it okay if Tracy comes too?”

“Oh yeah.  That’s totally cool.” The tone of his voice was upbeat but his face fell just the slightest amount.

Unnatural:

Pushing her cart down the aisle to the checkout lines Jamie stole a look at the magazines on the rack and ended up bumping into another cart. “Oh, excuse me. I’m very sorry about that.” The other cart was navigated by Nathan Hargrove.  He had on a Stone Ridge Rams T-shirt.

“That’s all right.  No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

“What did you say?” she asked not quite following his quirky sense of humor.

“I was just making a joke.  Aren’t you Jamie Peterson?”

“Yes I am. Aren’t you Nathan Hargrove?” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and pulled down on the bottom of her shirt.  “I believe we are both in Mr. Hogan’s psychology class during sixth period.”

“I think you are right, we are in sixth period psychology class together.” Nathan blushed as he bobbed his head a few times. “Aren’t you friends with Tracy Diamond and her good friend Ronnie Bartlett?”  Jamie nodded her head in response and waited to see how this was all going to play out.  Finally Nathan said, “That must be great,” just to fill space in the conversation. Shoppers were giving them looks as they had to squeeze their carts past the chatting teens parked in the narrow aisle. After another awkward pause he said, “Would you like to get together with me tomorrow or do you all ready have plans made for Friday?” He blushed again.

Jamie shrugged. “I think that would be fine. However, I’ll have to check with my parents first.” This time it was Jamie’s turn to blush. “Is it all right with you if I bring my friend Tracy along with me?”

“Oh sure.  That would be absolutely fine with me.” The tone of his voice was upbeat but his face fell just the slightest amount.

I hope that illustrates some of the points I was trying to make. As I said: listen.  Develop your ear for dialogue. Make note of colorful phrases and how people actually communicate, and let your ears do the talking.

I’m sorry, did you say something?…

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Please take a moment to fill out my poll on the right if you haven’t already done so.
illustration by Andy Black

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