Saturday, June 26, 2010

Speaking of Speaking…

One of the interesting things about dialogue is that fictional dialogue never reads the way people really speak to each other; it reads the way people think they speak to each other.

Prove it to yourself:
If you are one of the fortunate people who have a recorder on your cell phone, record a segment of the conversation around the water cooler or coffeepot at your workplace, one or two days in a row. If you are a stay-at-home parent, record people talking in a grocery line or PTA meeting.

A caveat here: In no way, for no reason and under no circumstances are you to use these conversations for anything but writing practice (unless you overhear a murder confession.) Transcribe these segments onto a Word document or something like it, and read it aloud. Chances are—with the exception of a few choice bits of gossip you should delete instantly, you will find this 'conversation' the dullest, least interesting drone of dialogue you ave ever endured.

Let’s approach it as a ratio: fictional dialogue is to actual dialogue—and this goes especially for filmic dialogue—as Haiku is to ordinary poetry. It is a condensation, a distillation of ideas and graceful flights of concept, a ‘boiling off’ of the steam and the rendering of the important conversational juices into a denser, richer and more satisfying draught.

Try this with your own work: take a troublesome few pages that are heavy with dialogue and rewrite them in a new document—or simply copy-and-paste into the new document. The only reason I mention rewriting is that the actual kinesthesis of rewriting helps to ‘burn’ the information into your brain through the use of larger muscles, and sometimes that’s enough to suggests helpful edits on the spot.

Now go through each line and say it aloud, or even better yet, if you can get a local theater group or high school/college drama class to stage a reading of this part of your work. It’s nice to invite members of your writing group and people from your town’s newspapers to sit in, if you’re not too shy. A small press release doesn’t hurt, either.

As they speak your undying prose, you will immediately hear where you need to rewrite. When I say, ‘undying prose,’ I’m not making fun of your or your prose; but if you don’t think it’s undying yet, stage nothing, invite no one, and get busy rewriting until it is undying. Then make the calls.

Make notes as the actors speak, and don’t mind stopping them to ask them to speak your hastily-rewritten lines. Don’t do this too often, but you may do it a few times if you are polite and respectful of their art as well as your own.

Occasionally, an actor will suggest a change. Listen with an open mind and thank them kindly for their contribution. You may not ever use it, but it is a free gift intended to help you improve your work, and that is always a compliment.

More next week.

Lang out.


  1. Great idea about recording conversations for examples of how people speak. We don't speak in complete sentences, we interrupt ourselves and continually abuse the King's English when we talk and that needs to be translated into dialogue when writing. Thanks for the tip!

  2. I read my entire novel out loud and made corrections as I went along. It's probably still not perfect, but definitely better, and more natural. Good advice.