Nothing is Sacred

Knowing how to write dialogue is an important tool for a writer. Even more important, though, I’d wager, is being able to write believable dialogue. Countless articles and books have been written on the subject, but the same advice always crops up: Pay attention and listen.

Ear

By David Benbennick [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What we hear in daily conversation doesn’t always work for the written word, of course. Slang, for example, can be problematic to explain to someone unfamiliar with its roots, just as dialect speech can be nightmarish for a reader to slog through. (Joseph, I’m looking at you.) Generally speaking, though, even these examples don’t have to be make-or-break issues with dialogue. If your characters are strong enough in their own voices, the little tweaks and twinges shouldn’t matter so much. Quirky speech patterns can even help identify characters to the audience, often a good thing.

But, those are generalities. I’m talking about specifics, here.

The other day, while sitting with some friends, we were talking about the transience and flow of language across generations. The discussion went pretty deep as we argued our opinions and went back and forth with pros and cons to each perspective. Then, from nowhere, one friend piped up, “I’m gonna bring back ‘rad’ to the common lexicon.”

I burst out laughing…and I knew I’d have to use it in a story.

My friends learned a long time ago that almost nothing said in my presence is sacred. Not to say I can’t keep a secret, because I can do that. But, the words themselves become free to my pen, the second they’ve left anyone’s mouth. I don’t make any excuses for myself in this regard. If I hear it with my ears, it instantly becomes reality – and believable – to me. And, that makes for great dialogue.

Some of my favorite conversations in real life I’ve decided to preserve in my stories. Many of them were simply jotted down in 100-word shorts or random snippets tucked into the pages of a notebook, for use – or not – at some later date. But, others have found their way actively woven into the larger tales, adding a sense of deeper realism and stronger truth to the story that may not have been so deep or so strong without them.

Other writers (ones better than me) say to listen to the world and words around you. Pay attention to the details. Keep your eyes and ears open. And, that inspiration can be sitting right in front of you. Or just to the left, spouting pearls of beautiful dialogue between peanuts and sips of beer.

Some among you may consider my technique of stealing borrowing words from such conversations cheating at my art. As for me, I prefer to consider it art imitating life. For real.

How do you create believable dialogue? Have you ever used real conversations in your stories? Were you able to read Joseph’s dialogue from Wuthering Heights without looking at a translation sheet?

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16 thoughts on “Nothing is Sacred

  1. I’ve never read Wuthering Heights, but I do have a very, very old copy sitting on my shelf right now. I’ll have to take a look at that.

    There’s nothing wrong with borrowing conversations. It’s not like you’re plagiarizing anything, so you’re totally fine.

    In all honesty, I do a lot of dialogue in my head. I often talk to myself, sometimes even arguing with myself. It’s pretty fun, really, and I get a lot of practice with how to organize what characters will say. Listening does help, but lately a lot of people I end up listening to talk way too much to consider it to be a conversation. My snarky self ends up commentating in my mind, so I get to practice that, too.

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    • I think the listening is more to understand the rhythm of communication. Like how people tend to step on each other’s sentences, in real life. Or, how they really don’t say each other’s names very often. What people actually say versus what they might imply…or infer.

      I pre-write most important conversations in my head, too, if only to get a feel for what sounds natural.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I once took a writing course that focused on dialogue. One of the assignments was to sit in a public place and eavesdrop on a conversation, write down a few lines (between 4-6), then bring it to class. The idea was to see if our classmates could figure out the subject matter of each of these conversations based on those 4-6 lines. It was an interesting experiment. It was pretty tough actually, depending on how vague or clear the lines were. But more often than not, people don’t refer back to the subject once a conversation starts. They tend to converse with a lot of vague, indirect words that are pretty meaningless out of context.

    It’s been years since I read WH. I’ll have to refresh my memory on that book first before I can answer your question!

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    • I’ve had to do assignments similar to that, too, Kate. What became important – for me, anyway – was paying attention to how people talk with each other, not necessarily what they’re saying. Thinking on it, it’s rather true that the flow of a conversation tends to drift from the subject, depending on how far deeply into it we go. I’ll have to pay more attention, now!

      I won’t say it’s not worth it to re-read Wuthering Heights…but certainly, don’t do it just for the Joseph bits! πŸ˜‰

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  3. At this stage of my writing, I think capturing dialog is one of my stronger suits. I’ve always been more of a listener than a talker, and I think that helps. Of course, when I started writing a few years ago, I made the common novice error of trying to be too literal, thinking it was “more realistic.” Of course, I’ve learned how that’s not true.

    When I see, for example, bloggers writing “literal” dialogue in their on-line stories, I now cringe. But I also remember that I made similar mistakes early on. Honestly, I think there’s a period all new writers must go through where we do this, reinventing the wheel, if you will.

    At some point, those writers who will stay the course will, like me, realize where they got it wrong. But I’ve read some “successful” books where the dialogue can fall flat. Other strengths carry those stories. But easily readable, clear dialogue can really make a story flow. That’s what I’m aiming for in my writing.

    And, yes, I have sneaked in some real snippets from real conversations. Sometimes, they’re too good to resist!

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    • Eavesdropping is rather rude, I suppose, strictly speaking…but it does offer new options for writing, JM! πŸ˜€ I’m spacing on what “literal” dialogue would be. I’ve read dialogue that is quite stilted, explaining everything. Or, full of too many colloquialisms, like a Tarantino script (which works fine on-screen, since it’s spoken…but reading it on a page is annoying). I think what’s important is that we find a nice balance for both realism and our own voices to come through, which you’ve managed to do well, indeed!

      Thanks for commenting. πŸ™‚

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      • Oh, for “literal” I was thinking of things like this:

        “Hey, Stacy, how are you?”
        “Why, I’m fine, thank you. How about you?”
        “I’m good, too. So where should we go for lunch?”
        “Oh, I don’t know. What sounds good to you?”

        Now, I wasn’t as bad as this at first, but I would put in too much of the normal back-and-forth. As you say for the colloquialisms, that can work on screen, but not so much on the page!

        Those extended dialogues that don’t move the plot forward should be trimmed as much as possible. πŸ˜‰

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        • Ah, I see, now.

          Yes, probably best to avoid the mundane intricacies of that sort of conversation. πŸ™‚ However, I sometimes do like it when authors use those moments to show how a dialogue between individuals isn’t working. Like, speakers avoiding an important topic by talking about where to go for lunch and whatnot. πŸ™‚

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  4. Hi Mayumi – now that I am back from my long trip I am enjoying seeing what my favourite bloggers are up to. I have to say this made me smile. I have spent a lot of time over the last month listening to conversations. This is what happens when you are on your own. Suddenly, lunch in a cafe – rather than taken up with conversation with a friend – is spent overhearing what’s going on at the next door table. I certainly don’t think it’s cheating, because there is a creative process between the moment you overhear something and then what you decide to do with that ‘gem’. Nice work! It’s good to be back πŸ˜‰

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    • Welcome back, Gabriela! I didn’t see you return. I’ll need to check my notifications.

      Even while out with family and friends, it’s difficult for me to turn off that listening ear. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than the folks who read their phones at the table. πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for stopping by!

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      • Ah, I haven’t posted yet, if that’s what you mean. Just now getting some thoughts down on paper!
        As for the folks reading their phones – to me this is an image that always makes me sad as the real world in all it’s complex beauty loses its audience.

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        • Well, I’m looking forward to reading your adventures! πŸ™‚

          I genuinely try to avoid looking at/using my phone when I’m out with other people. Even when I’m alone, it makes me feel detached…and vulnerable! (Though, living in New York City will do that to anyone, I think!)

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  5. I try to keep my conversations as realistic as possible, though accents can be hard to do, like I have to in “Lone Wolf Association” with Cid and some later entries. But I do agree that the best way to write a conversation is to have it out loud and see how it flows from character to character. Least that’s how I try to do it.

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    • I’m a fan of speaking aloud, too. It’s one of the reasons I cringe when I read some 1MC! conversations. (People don’t really address each other by name that often!) πŸ™‚

      Balancing reality with story can be tricky, sometimes. I don’t want to info-dump, but – occasionally – it’s the easiest way to explain a situation, from one character’s mouth.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  6. I take snippets from daily conversations and bring it into my writing. I never try to transpose conversation word for word. It reads terrible. But when a great line pops out of someone’s mouth, I know at some time my character will say something like that. πŸ™‚

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    • I like my characters to have their own voices, but, when inspiration sends me that little jolt, I have to at least write it down! πŸ˜€

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