I’ve belonged to a Fiction Writing Workshop now for nearly ten years. It’s a venue for writers to post their written work – short stories or chapters if it’s a novel – and get a feedback from workshop members. Many of the members are published writers with solid track record.
The most common flaw of the writing craft is stiff and unrealistic dialogue. But how to write dialogue that at the very least won’t make the reader groan?
Well, there’s no sugarcoating it – you must be able to hear that dialogue in your head. And then write it as you “hear” the voice in your head, not as your conscious effort at the end of the keyboard interprets it. But let’s say you can’t really play out the whole story in your head without interruptions. What to do then? Buy an inexpensive recording device, take it with you in the car, turn it on and then talk to yourself as you drive. Talk to the pedestrian traffic, talk to the lights, talk out your shopping list that you carry in your head, and eventually you will come to talking out your story. Talk out any tangential dialogue, asides and second thoughts, awkward pauses and throat clearings — basically all that goes into your verbal expression when the conversation is running through your head. Don’t keep it sequential. If a particular character pops in to your head, talk him/her out – essentially give your creations a voice of their own.
Then listen to it. And transcribe it all, with throat clearings and pauses and hums and haws. Then take a bestselling novel in your favorite genre, flip it open (and I mean a hard copy or trade paperback) and start copying at least 5 pages of dialogue out of that book, listening to your fingers far more so than the meaning of what you’re transcribing.
Then print out your transcribed ramblings and put them in front of you, and start re-working them, noting all the “flaws” in your spoken dialogue.
You’d be able to handle maybe a page or two – no more on any given occasion. Then go back to another bestseller of your favorite genre and type out a few pages of dialogue. You’ll feel the difference, if only for a few moments as you type.
Do this exercise as often as you can and believe it or not, after a few weeks, you’ll be able to “hear and talk” to your characters in your head and then write their dialogue such that they’ll sound convincing.
Yeah, I know, I said a few weeks and that’s a groaner but the truth is that writing decent dialogue is devilishly difficult and if you can mange to write just passable dialogue after a few weeks, you’re way ahead of many writers still struggling with this writing task.
Listening to people talk doesn’t do it. You need to “talk it out with your characters,” and then be able to listen to it. You’ve got to train your mind, your inner voice, your inner critic and your fingers to work as one great orchestra.