Speaking of Inspiration

Posted February 23, 2012 by kate in Character Development, Dialogue, Inspiration, The Writing Process, Writing Exercises / 0 Comments

Inspiration – Assignment #2

I love writing dialogue. But there are still days I want to pull my hair out because everything my characters are saying seems trite or stilted. (Helpful hint: When your own characters’ conversations make you yawn, you have a problem.)

So, when I get stuck, how do I get those creative juices flowing again?

I listen.

One of the best ways to figure out how to write dialogue is to pay attention to how people talk — not just what they’re talking about, but also how they’re saying it. When you’re chatting with your co-workers, pay attention to how their style of conversation is a reflection of their various personalities. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop, listen to conversations going on around you — especially if those present represent a segment of the population about which you are writing (spoiled suburban teens, high-powered executives, firefighters on a coffee break, etc.).  The more often you do this, the better you’ll get at writing dialogue that reflects your characters’ personalities and circumstances.

If you’re uncomfortable eavesdropping in a coffee shop or dissecting everything your friends say, try watching a few really well-made movies with snappy dialogue and make notes as you’re watching. A few of my favorites for aural voyeurism:

1) Gosford Park
2) Jaws
3) Orange County
4) Serenity
5) Tombstone
6) The Godfather
7) Steel Magnolias
8 ) Henry V (or really any fabulous adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays)
9) Fargo
10) Pretty much anything by comedy legends, Monty Python.

I read.

This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t bother reading much. I don’t know how someone trying to perfect his/her craft can get a feel for dialogue that works (or doesn’t) without reading what other people have written. There are certain writers who are masters at incorporating believable, engaging, and necessary conversations in their works.

Also, keep in mind that not everyone carries on a conversation in the same way. Some people are very direct and stay on topic; others live in Tangent Land. Do you have a fave author whose dialogue leaves you in stitches or who seems to be able to show you everything you need to know about a character simply by how he talks to those around him? Next time you read this fave of yours, pay attention to how she pulls it off — you just might learn something!

I write.

Again, this should be a big “Duh,” but you’d be surprised…

When I was in grad school I didn’t have much time to write anything particularly long and involved (such as a novel), so instead I tried writing what I called “snippets.”  Essentially, these were just short vignettes that told a story using nothing but dialogue. And I mean nothing — no speech tags, no narration, no description. The point was to use only what the characters were saying to tell the reader absolutely everything s/he needed to know about the characters, the setting, the action taking place — and to do so in a way that seemed naturally-occurring in the course of the conversation.

It’s harder than it seems, but it’s a great way to hone your craft.

So, here’s your assignment:

Write your own snippet of 3-5 pages that tells your readers everything they want to know about characters, setting, and the conflict between them. Then give it to a few beta readers and ask them to describe what’s happening in the snippet. If you’ve done well, they won’t even notice that dialogue is all that’s on the page. And if they aren’t able to sort it all out, get some feedback to figure out why. Revise the snippet incorporating any feedback you find valuable and give it to them again until they “get it.”

Good luck and happy writing!

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