On Dialogue

Black and white picture of handwritten dialogue by Malin JamesI posted a story on my other site yesterday that reminded me how much I love writing dialogue. A lot of my stories are fairly minimalistic, with people saying less than they strictly have to. It’s as much about what’s happening in the gaps as it is about what’s being said.

But yesterday’s story was the opposite – nearly all dialogue, driven by a comfortable, natural patter between two sisters. It was an off-the-cuff thing and it felt great. It also reinforced something that I’ve always known about myself as a writer – that my writing is informed by acting in all kinds of subtle ways.

I have no formal training as a writer. I taught myself how to deconstruct and write stories over the course of twenty years, two Master’s Degrees and lots and lots of books – good books, bad books and books I can’t even remember having read. What I do have is extensive acting training and experience working with characters on stage.

Which is why so much of my writing is character driven. There’s always a plot (because without plot, it’s a moment, not a story), but the plots are almost always fueled by a character’s internal drives and motivations, rather than external forces. This will likely change at some point because a person’s writing is almost never fixed. Like aspects of any other creative discipline, a writer’s style and voice tend to evolve over time (so long as the writer lets them).

What I don’t imagine changing is that I will always be primarily interested in the people I’m writing about, (as opposed to concepts etc). Because for me they are people – not little objects I’ve constructed – so it’s natural for me to want get into their heads and dig around. That’s where all the acting comes in handy. I analyzed and interpreted other people’s characters, from Shakespeare to Chekov, for years, so playing with my own characters is like working in a mental playground. And a natural extension of that is writing dialogue.

No one sounds the same. Even two people, raised in the same household, in the same place with all of the same frames of reference sound different because, in the end, no matter how similar they are, they are two different people. Ask any set of twins. But rather than consciously trying to make the two sisters in yesterday’s story sound different, I let their differences play themselves out.

One sister is sexually experienced and up for anything. The other isn’t so sure. So, how would a conversation about a new boyfriend’s fetish go down, especially if it happened over drinks with a hot bartender listening in?

So, you take your two people and you set them down in a context, and then you just let them talk. I know that sounds ridiculous and kind of woo-woo, but I honestly believe that good dialogue comes from being impulsive, open and trusting your gut.

That’s not necessarily the case with all things in narrative. Plot needs conscious attention because it needs to make sense (unless your Thomas Pynchon, whom I can’t stand). Other elements, however, need your conscious attention to get out of the way so your subconscious attention can go to town.

characters have an agenda because your brain has a story to tell, and sometimes you’re only 10% aware of what that story actually is. The characters are the subconscious dynamos that drive whatever that story is, so when you write dialogue without trying to consciously mold it, you’re allowing your brain to tell you the story in the voices of the characters who inhabit it.

Good dialogue isn’t “dialogue” at all. It’s a conversation. All you need is a (really) basic understanding of who’s talking, why and where, and you’re off. Sometimes nothing comes of it, but sometimes something does, and when it does, when your characters surprise you by sounding like people, not like extensions of yourself, you know you’ve written dialogue that works.

I know this sort of approach isn’t right for everyone because every writer is different. I write to find out what I’m trying to say so an instinctive approach to dialogue is natural for me. For writers who work in a more structured fashion, what I just described would probably drive them nuts. The bottom line is that, no matter how you work, dialogue should slip into the reader’s head. You want your reader to hear what’s being said, rather than think, “wow, that’s great dialogue!” Acting is just the influence that helps  me get there.

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10 thoughts on “On Dialogue

  1. This how my longer pieces get written. It’s always a conversation between people. The different voices develop and quite often the story ends up completely out of my hands. It’s usually better when I let my characters take over 😀

  2. I basically run dialogue in my head for a long time when I plan a story. i watch the conversation like it’s a film. And then panic I won’t remember it 🙂

    • Oh, well that explains why I love your dialogue! It reads like a film – very smooth and rhythmic. I love the natural, conversational-ness of it. I might try rolling scenes around in my head like that. I just have to make sure I have paper around because I *know* I will absolutely forget 🙂

  3. I just found this in Pocket. I saved it because I remember thinking I wanted to read it properly when I had time. I love dialogue. I’ve never written fiction, but many of the essays I write on E40 are anchored around quotes and snippets of conversations I’ve had, sometimes years ago, sometimes just hours ago. At the moment I have a draft post about visibility as you age, which is basically a collections of quotes either drawn from my own conversations with friends and comments I’ve seen women in the media make. I love how chewing over conversations helps me distill thoughts down so they make sense in a way you don’t always recognise when you first read or hear or them or have the conversation. No idea if that makes sense. I’m half watching the Paralympics as I watch this and am nearly at the bottom of a bottle of wine!! It makes sense in my head!! Xx

  4. The dialogue in your work is impressive. I admire the timing of it, and how the characters are defined by it.

    At times it is fun to listen to people’s dialogue in a setting where I don’t know anyone. Not in a disrespectful way, but to maybe learn something. One fun practice I have been doing (inspired by you) is when I run in a busy area I can hear people’s conversations for just a few seconds as I past by them (walkers). Some of the things I hear make me want to continue the story in my head. It is a fun way to pass the time on a long run and also gets me to think more creatively. I heard one young lady talk about how satisfied she felt “releasing the lions”. My guess is that one could go in many directions.

    • Oh, that’s wonderful, Glen. Thank you so much. And yes! I agree – subtle eavesdropping is s *fabulous* practice, both for spontaneity and cadence on dialogue, and for story ideas. You’re very right about, “releasing the lions”. There’s a story there 🙂

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