#WritingChallenge: LISTEN to create stronger dialogue

By Deirdre

Strong dialogue will draw readers into your book and catch an editor’s ear. There are a few things that make your dialogue stand out in the slush pile and feel fresh and contemporary:

The dialogue sounds natural: The speech isn’t overly formal, and doesn’t read like a Wikipedia entry explaining the characters’ feelings.  Meaning is often in the subtext: What do people wish they could say, and what do they actually say?

Avoidance of AYKB (As You Know, Bob): The characters don’t tell each other things they each already know so the author can convey information to the reader.

The dialogue isn’t clichéd: When the dialogue sounds like it came from another romance novel instead of life, an editor can become bored. Sometimes people do use clichés when speaking, but if you’re going to include clichés, do so deliberately to illustrate character.

The dialogue feels contemporary: Before your twenty-year-old heroine calls someone a “gloomy gus” or your hero wittily invites the heroine into his car with, “Your chariot awaits!” ask yourself when you last heard someone use these expressions.

It’s surprising! People are quirky, weird and unique, and though it seems contradictory, when you add specific details to your writing, it’s more relatable. Don’t be generic!

Your challenge this week is to eavesdrop, uh, I mean, scientifically observe, conversations around you to gather examples of real life speech that could enrich your dialogue. Watch for figures of speech, body language, subtext and just plain head-turning statements! Your phone’s note-taking app is a great way to surreptitiously capture dialogue from real people. Then share some of your observations in the comments!

Places for your very scientific observations could include coffee shops, stores, restaurants, trains, buses, subways, parks, museums, streets, the gym, the elevator – literally anywhere people congregate.

Bonus challenge: After spending some time listening to people, read your own manuscript dialogue aloud. Does it sound natural? Is it contemporary? Does it reveal character and entertain?

Ready, authors? Now, research!

Need more tips on dialogue? Check out Mastering the art of dialogue and Say it with Style: How to write great dialogue from our archive.


8 replies on “#WritingChallenge: LISTEN to create stronger dialogue”

I learned something useful this last novel I wrote.
Go to YouTube and find a casual celebrity interview. Turn off the sound and *watch* the people talking. Don’t listen. Watch. People communicate a lot besides what they say. Sometimes it’s opposite of what they’re saying. Sometimes it enhances what they’re saying. I learned a lot from that.

Great idea, Kimber-Li! Body language. I try to incorporate it into my books but it usually comes with the layering part of editing for me. I just get the story out first then go over it for all the flaws I can think of that I know I do and am trying to avoid. That’s how I know I’m improving. I find less all the time. But there are still dumb things that slip buy like a comma and a period, or here’s a good one: I wrote a whole scene, a dream scene with the heroine and the other man when it was supposed to be the hero. I switched names somehow. Lol. But I fixed it now.

Fantastic tip, Kimber Li! I remember being mesmerized by a discussion on the subway between a young man and woman. I couldn’t hear a word they said, but there was such intense emotion in their body language, I felt all the drama of their disagreement.

I love this idea! I used to abuse adverbs. “He said, sullenly.” “She answered, sarcastically.” Now I do an -ly search through my work and use body language to express the same thing. “He slumped into a dejected curve, long fingers jammed into tight pockets,” etc.
I bet watching YouTube would be great to build body-language desriptors!

I’ve found it helps to have someone read it with me, like a script. I catch a lot of awkward sentences that way, and it’s easy way to ensure characters’ voices are clear and unique.

Great idea! And you bring up a good point about listening to hear if each voice is distinct.

Overheard a girl tell a guy this last night while leaving Target:
“Retweet. Hardcore.” Then they got in their car and looked at their phones.
Also, I notice when you ask some people a direct question – their non-answer (they look away for example) IS their answer.

Haha, love it! And yes, so much can be communicated through non-verbal “answers”!

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