Sunday, September 18, 2011

You'll Never Guess What I Just Heard...

At this stage in my still to be completed novel I have been having difficulty with the dialogue. As a first step, I purchased "Writing Dialogue" by Tom Chiarella, which is a great book, and I highly recommend it. In Tom's book, there are a number of exercises for gathering dialogue, as well as recognizing the nuances and rhythm of the way we say things.

The first exercise I decided on was to carry a notebook with me everywhere and write down the last statement/phrase that I said when talking to someone. I thought it would be boring, but feeling open-minded (and a bit desperate to fix my dialogue problems) I went for it. Boy, was I wrong about boring! It is amazing what comes out of my mouth some days!

I learned that there are catch phrases that I use too often:

"Right on" and "that's funny," being the worst offenders

And then there are the one-offs that probably won't be said again in the history of mankind, although, I have come to realize that parents do tend to put together phrases that you just never would conceive of hearing, like:

"Grover, stop licking the sofa!" and: "Don't do it again; when you lick the DVD's it makes the machine sticky!"

If nothing more, I learned through that exercise that my son licks too many things that are not really 'lick-able'!

The next exercise was to "Crowd." This is when you go to a public place and basically eavesdrop on conversations. Typically, a mall is a great place for people-watching, but for dialogue-listening, I find that the echoed voices create too much of a din to properly hear conversations. I decided on our local bookshop, which is equipped with a handy coffee shop.

With Grover as my 'cover', (I mean, how much more unassuming can a tot and a mom playing 'go fish' be?) we headed to the circle of chairs to set up our... erm... dialogue sting. I was hopeful; there was a pair of middle-aged men sitting in two of the chairs engaged in conversation, stern conversation I gathered from their expressions. I settled into a chair in the corner and gave Grove my credit card to get a hot cocoa from the counter (probably won't be able to to that much longer; he'll be coming back with more that hot cocoa before long!).

Man with beard: "I know, I know. I told her she should make her amends before--"
Man with beanie: "Before it's too late, but it was."
Man with beard: "Bitterness, man... Bitterness will eat you up and kill you from the inside out."
Man with beanie: "I know; I told my niece the same thing before her mother died... Ate her up... Can't take it back now."
Man with beard: "You want another lemon cake?"
Man with beanie: "Yeah, alright."

They got up and went to wait in line behind Grover, who, already exerting his independence, was receiving, not only a cocoa, but a plate with a donut on it, complete with frosting and yellow sprinkles. Grover came back to me, proud of his sticky accomplishment. I quickly fished my credit card out of his pocket.

Grove and I were halfway through a game of 'go fish' by the time another dialogue opportunity sauntered in and plopped down in chairs close to us. They were a pair of teens; a tall, thin boy with just a bit of fuzz on his chin, and a short girl close in age to the boy, with a light pink flush on her cheeks and ears; obvious hints of infatuation.

I got my notebook ready and pulled my secret weapon for Grover out of my purse: A new "Charlie and Lola" book I had purchased in secret. Grove took the book with relish, and I brandished my pen...

Boy:  "You don't want anything do you?" (Code for: I'm broke, I can't buy you a coffee)
Girl:  "No, I'm fine; I'm not even hungry... at all." (Code for: I'm starving, but I know you're broke)
Boy:  "Cool."
Girl:  "So it was, like, totally cold today!"
Boy:  "Yeah, I guess."
Girl:  "Yeah... and I was, like, waiting at the bus stop, and, like, was gonna go in a get a sweater, but like, I knew my mom wouldn't gimme a ride to school if I missed the bus, so I just, like, froze."
Boy:  "Yeah."
Girl:  "So... yeah."
Boy:  ...
Girl:  "So cold..."

I looked up from my notebook at this point; partially because Grover was beginning to vibrate from cocoa/donut combination, and partly to check and make sure the boy hadn't gone into a coma.  The boy was sitting in the armchair with his chin in his hand, stroking the tuft of hair with his pinkie while the girl sat in the chair caddie-corner to his looking at her fingernails, but stealing glances at the boy (perhaps wondering herself if he had, indeed, fallen into some sort of coma).

I don't suppose using the second conversation in writing will win any O'Henry awards, however, the act of paying close attention to everything that accompanies a conversation will help to build our ability to write more effective dialogue.

My challenge to you:  Get yourself a notebook and steal away!  Learn the art of lurking for dialogue, and it will improve your skill... at the very least, you'll have fun feeling like a spy!

Write prolifically!



  1. Love this Rebecca! I have actually had that book sitting unopened on my shelf for years. I didn't know it included field-trips. :) Sounds like a fun way to spend the day.

  2. I've always eavesdropped, mostly to study British idiom. I think studying real dialogue is helpful, but I don't think literary dialogue is always meant to be real. It could instead be shocking or surprising. It might be absurd or elliptical. The dialogic technique a writer chooses depends on what the writer intends to achieve. My rule is dialogue should always reveal something about the character.

  3. I love this! What a great idea! I have such a hard time with dialogue. This is a perfect idea. I'm not sure how i will work in "licking" but I've got to try!

    Can't wait to hear the results of more of your experiments.

  4. @Christopher: Thank you for taking the time to take a look. You are absolutely right about literary dialogue; it MUST reveal something about the character or it's useless...even if the only revelation is that the character has, indeed, no depth of character whatsoever... ;o) Thank you! ~Bex