Develop an Ear for Dialogue

By Victor DiGenti

“Lemme axt you sumppin’, man.”

I paused in mid-stride, my attention shifting to the speaker. The gravelly voice was distinctive enough, but it was the single phrase that caught my writer’s ear. I was on my way to gate C-45 in the Houston Airport and turned to see the speaker slumped in one of the molded plastic seats lining the windows of the concourse. He was staring into the distance, unaware of my interest and seemed to be talking to himself until I noticed the Bluetooth device growing from his ear like a hi-tech tumor.

Continuing my trek toward the distant gate, I tucked Lemme axt you summpin’, man, into my mental notebook. This is how real people talk, I thought. Not in the stilted phrases some writers put in their character’s mouths.

We can learn a lot about writing dialogue by listening. Listening to strangers in airports. Eavesdropping on one-way conversations of the ubiquitous cell phone users in public places. And before you tell me it isn’t polite to eavesdrop, lemme axt you to show me where in Miss Manners Rules of Etiquette it states it’s OK for a stranger at the table next to mine to disturb my dinner with inane long-distance conversations?

Personal prejudices aside, I’m always on the lookout for choice bits of dialogue. Dialogue that will bring a character to life with an earthy epithet. A folksy idiom. A new twist on an old saying. For example, I was in a doctor’s waiting room (and waiting is the operative word here) perusing a six-month-old magazine when I tuned into a conversation between two women sitting nearby. I came into the conversation too late to know who they were talking about, but I loved how one of the women described this person. “She thinks she’s a bag of chips and all that.”

I couldn’t wait to return home and write that down before I forgot it. I’m not sure when or where I’ll use it, but rest assured it will find it’s way into one of my stories.

Colorful shards of dialogue add texture and vividness to your characters, but good dialogue is more than an arrangement of unusual words and phrases. And that’s one of the problems of relying on real-life conversations as a model for fictional dialogue. The job of dialogue is to advance the story and provide insights into your character. Too much dialogue sounds too much like real conversation. And there’s the paradox. We want our characters to appear realistic, but most conversations between real people are disjointed, filled with run-on sentences, incomplete thoughts. In other words, boring and dull.

Think about your last conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. Maybe it went something like this:

“Hey, good to see you again.”

“Uh, yeah, it’s been a long time.”

“Well, how’re you doing? And how’s the family?”

“Fine. Everyone’s fine.”

Not a lot happening here. How long will it take before the reader is bored to tears and agree with Dorothy Parker who once said, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

In real conversations, people usually answer a question directly, but good dialogue is oblique. Instead of answering the question, the respondent might ask another question or answer a completely different question. Let’s look at the above snippet of conversation and make a few changes.

“Hey, good to see you again.”

“Is that right?”

“Uh, well, how’re you doing?”

“And where have you been for the last six months?”

Would you say these two people have unresolved issues? With that simple exchange we’ve increased the tension and the reader knows something is definitely wrong. The second speaker hasn’t answered directly, rather indirectly and by asking her own questions.

In his book, Stein on Writing, editor, author and instructor Sol Stein said to ask yourself the following questions when examining your dialogue:

  • What is the purpose of the exchange? Does it begin or heighten an existing conflict?
  • Does it stimulate the reader’s curiosity?
  • Does the exchange create tension?
  • Does the dialogue build to a climax or a turn of events in the story or a change of relationship of the speakers?

Stein goes on to suggest that after examining your dialogue by asking these questions, you then go through it and remove any clichés and echoes. Echoes are repetitions from one speaker to the other. This is something you’ll find in most real-life conversations. For example:

“It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, it has been a long time.”

This adds clutter to the dialogue and increases the boredom factor. Most readers are drawn to the white spaces—dialogue—on a page instead of the blocks of gray exposition. Good dialogue moves the story along, and can stand on its own. Too often the author doesn’t trust the reader to follow the meaning of the dialogue and inserts himself into the conversation by over-explaining. Like this:

“You’re late again. I’ve told you before that I wasn’t going to put up with your sloppy work habits.” He was really mad. Why couldn’t Fred see how his actions were upsetting him?

Oh, here we go again, Fred thought. “I got hung up in traffic. I’m sure it’s happened to you before.” This guy just won’t cut me a break.

Once your characters take the stage, they should stand on their own and reveal their feelings by what they say and do, not by the author interpreting their actions for the reader.

Another problem that crops up with new writers is the use of dialogue to convey information to the reader in a heavy-handed way. When characters are telling each other things they should already know it’s usually a clumsy way to convey information to the reader. Such as:

“Your son the doctor called while you were out.”

“Oh, you mean Charles, the cardiologist? What did he want?

“He wanted to remind you he wasn’t coming to the family reunion Sunday. He was going to be in San Francisco.”

“That’s right; he has to give a talk at a medical conference.”

If we heard this conversation we might be tempted to look for a hidden microphone. Surely, they were not talking for their benefit, but in order to pass along information to a hidden source, In this case, the reader. Lawrence Block calls this Soap-Opera Dialogue because its function is to provide information to viewers who may have missed the last few episodes. Avoid any use of Soap-Opera Dialogue in your writing.

Finally, be sure your characters have their own voice. No two people sound alike or speak the same way. A doctor wouldn’t speak the same way as a bartender although they may both dispense advice and “medications.” Look for ways to make each character’s speech distinctive so that the reader will be able to identify the speaker.

Good dialogue is as important to the story as good characters. It comes easier to some writers than others, but it’s worth any extra effort it takes to make it leap from the page. So, lemme axt you sumppin, man. What do you have to say for yourself?

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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