I've heard a lot of fellow aspiring authors talking about dialogue lately, and how they struggle with it. That's one of the few things I feel I got right, so I thought I'd spend today's post expounding on how I think I figured it out.
I credit my ear for dialogue and being able to put it on the page to my being a quiet child. I was content to sit back and listen to conversations, instead of engaging in them. I absorbed not only the ideas, but the words, and how they flowed. I watched movies, listening for that same cadence I found in real life. I learned to pick out dialogue that fell flat rather easily. And, of course, I read books, trying to hear the voices in my head as characters spoke.
I also listened to a lot of music, which, by definition, has to fit into the flow of the surrounding notes. I grew impatient with songs whose words I couldn't hear. When I could make out the words, I listened until I'd memorized them, just so that I could replay them in my head. I imagined the songs as a conversation, the music as how the singer spoke.
And so, when it came time to write stories of my own, the easiest thing in the world was to mimic the ebb and flow of a human conversation. I'd observed hundreds, maybe even thousands, by then.
That isn't to say my early attempts were perfect. If I could find them, I'm willing to bet I'd cringe at how obvious everyone sounded, at my tone-deaf renderings, at my "as you know, Bob," exposition. I've learned quite a bit since those early days.
I've learned, for instance, that all characters should sound different. It's usually in the cadence, or the words they choose, and their dialogue characteristics shift with mood. This isn't something I set out to do deliberately, though. As with most facets of the craft of writing, it's about trying out several things on one's own by writing something never meant to see the light of day. To practice this skill, I once wrote a short story that was entirely dialogue, without the dialogue markers. When this was shared with the class, I handed out copies, and highlighted the "parts" different colors for different classmates to read aloud. When it turned out I'd highlighted one passage the wrong color, everyone knew, because it sounded wrong coming from that reader's mouth.
I've also learned how to avoid exposition within my dialogue. I had taken the "show, don't tell" edict to heart so well that, for a while, I couldn't tell the reader anything, except through my characters' conversations. It's okay to have one character fill in another on what she missed, but replaying an entire scene, or an afternoon, or a summer, is a no-no. People speak in short bursts. If someone is monologuing, I need to cut him off.
Most importantly, I've learned not to rely on the strength of my dialogue. The story can't be primarily dialogue, unless I'm writing a play. Even plays have stage directions. I have to back up what people are saying with description, voice, setting, and, most importantly, plot. As fun as it might be to listen to two of my characters blather on for five pages, I need to trim it down to only dialogue that serves the story.
I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, and, the most helpful bit I can relay, to anyone struggling with dialogue, is this: dialogue should always serve two purposes in the text. It should advance the plot, while also telling us something about the people engaging in the conversation, or about their relationship. That's been extremely helpful in my editing sessions, when I'm figuring out where I need to cut my characters off. Hopefully, it'll help you, too.