Saturday, June 13, 2009

Wilson on Found Dialogue

N.D. Wilson offers a useful exercise on how to add extra oomph to your characters' dialogue. Excerpts:

Go to a public place (restaurant, bus-stop, coffee-shop, etc.). Take a notebook. Sit somewhere that gives your ears full auditory range. Listen. Attempt to copy down whatever dialog drifts your way. …

When you’ve collected a page or two, look over what you have. You’ll notice that the dialog contains all sorts of subtexts and unstated running tensions that you understand (because you’re human and you speak English). But if you had tried to write the same scene from scratch, you would have been too overt, included too much, and heavy-handedly (nice, right?) forced your characters into the mold you had assigned to them. A real conversation shifts and moves quickly, and not just over topics. …

Once you have a nice scene-length conversation, get to work editing. Try to limit yourself to cutting material only. Add no fictional dialog (yet). As a way to control (and imitate) the conversation, insert gesture and brief (brief) description. Use gesture for as much attribution as possible (little ticks can tell the reader who’s speaking more effortlessly than ‘he said’ or ’she said’). …

Lastly, once it’s tight and working, start to mess with the setting. Can you believably reset the entire thing in a different location?
Read the whole thing. Though you can mine literary gems from the stuff of ordinary life, beware of borrowing sentences from friends or family. Suppose, for instance, it’s the night of a dinner party your wife has been planning for some time, and imagine (just for the sake of example) that she gets irritated with your suggestions and says, "You are not the hostess. You are the host, which means that you write the check and keep quiet." Do not put this in a piece, even if it will go on to win the Pulitzer prize. Especially if it goes on the win the Pulitzer prize. That way lieth strife and suffering and perhaps a few cold dinners.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
Jos├ęPedro)

4 comments:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The final warning sounds a bit like writing from experience.

My latest story involves a lot of stealing characters/appearances/quirks from real life. I've actaully asked a friend if he minded being fictionalized and eaten by a vampire. He said it sounded like fun.

Loren Eaton said...

CR, I don't know what you're talking about. What a surprising conclusion to draw. It comes as a complete shock to me.

Back when I was in high school, I remember writing a SF / horror hybrid. Somewhere in the middle of it, I got mad at a friend and proceeded to introduce him into the story for three paragraphs only so that he could get killed off. With a blowtorch. Ah, high school ...

B. Nagel said...

ha hahaha ha.

No matter what she says, it's best not to write it down. Otherwise, she may start writing down what you say. And no good can cometh of that-eth.

Loren Eaton said...

Well, B, we're a little late for that, seeing as she actually already has ...