To Speak or Not to Speak: Tricks for writing dialogue

Conversation is a journey and what gives it value is fear.  You come to understand travel because you have had conversations, not vice versa. Anne Carson, The Anthropology of Water.

Like polite guests at a party, writers rush to fill in the silence between characters. This usually results in predictable dialogue that bores the reader and the writer..(“Hi,” she said. “Hi,” he answered.)  But dialogue is rarely a direct exchange and is often most important because it reflects what characters don’t say rather than what they do say. To put it differently: Dialogue often bears the burden of the unsaid.

It also reflects the relationship between people. One might say that the relationship is a third character and this is what drives  conversation.

Think, for example, of throwing a ball against a fence. Before it comes back to you, you hear the sound of the ball against the fence. That sound is like the moment between one character’s speaking and another responding. It’s the most important beat.

Before going any further, it’s important to remember that most writing tips are helpful after you’ve been spontaneous, made mistakes, and written a hundred “Hi,” she saids.   If you clench yourself up and try to think too much your writing will be stalled and become a head trip with a new inner critic inside.

Unless you’re a writer to whom dialogue comes easily, getting characters to talk naturally takes time and mistakes. You have to learn to listen to the dialogue rather than think it.

Having said this, one trick is to learn to cross out beats.  In the process you will eventually discover that you have written something interesting in the midst of all the verbiage.

Here’s an example of crossing out beats:

‘”Hi,” he said.

“Hi ,” she answered.

“Did you go to the store?” he asked

“I went before I left for work,” she answered.

“Did you buy potatoes?”

“Yes. They’re in the pantry.”

“I don’t see them.”

“They’re in that bag.”

“In the bag?”

“Yes. It’s in the pantry,”

“How come you put them in the pantry?”

“It was the easiest place.”

“How come?”

“The path’s a mess. I set down the bag and when I picked it up the bottom had oil from when you worked on the car.”

There’s a long interchange between A and B that’s boring and predictable. But eventually the dialogue starts to illuminate the relationship. If you cross out all the beats that aren’t interesting, you’ll get:

“Did you go to the store?” he asked.

“The path is a mess,” she said. “I set down the bag and when I picked it up it was all full of oil from when you worked on the car.

More often than not, you will find that you have written interesting and illuminating dialogue.  It’s just gotten lost with unnecessary beats.

The more you become familiar with crossing out dialogue beats, the more you will learn to listen to your characters when you write. You also may begin to pick up what’s not being said when you listen to people talk.

copyright Thaisa Frank: Essays on Writing Fiction/please contact before reproducing; please reference this article and credit it.  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

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