The Art of Dialogue - with Tracey Kathryn
Prewriting exercises to improve dialogue-writing skills
I’m an advocate of prewriting exercises. Similar to a jogger stretching her muscles before taking a loop around the block, a writer should loosen her mind before tapping the keyboard. This month, I’m discussing exercises in relation to writing dialogue. The craft of composing dialogue is a specific skill that every fiction writer should have; it’s a technique that conveys plot and character, and it speeds storytelling. Like it or not, modern readers expect books with plots that are accessible and quick to understand; concise dialogue assists that process. My suggestions for composing strong dialogue include thinking like a reporter; reading writers who are skilled in crafting dialogue; taking a dialogue-specific writing class; and using exercises to improve dialogue writing skills.
Listen to Conversations Around You
Reporters are trained to listen for sound bites. After a reporter has attended enough interviews and press conferences, he knows strong comments when he hears them. But the words a reporter tunes into are more than random ideas. The phrases or expressions a good reporter captures have context; the words an interview subject uses tell the story of the event or they reveal the motivations of the person who has spoken.
Writers are reporters. As an exercise in expanding dialogue skills, take an afternoon (or two or three) to listen for sound bites. Seek out conversations around you. Tune in at a coffee shop, the check-out line at the grocery store, or during a walk at the dog park. Phrases, accents, or comments that encapsulate someone’s experience or thoughts will stand out once you’re focused on finding such an exclamation. (I don’t consider this exercise as eavesdropping. Seeing a face or knowing the conversationalists involved isn’t the point; in fact, it’s better if there are no faces or names associated with your research. The focus of this exercise is about you; you are listening for ideas, phrases, and regional accents that tell a story or reveal a character. Your mind should connect the dots between what you hear and a character you may be creating.
Read Writers Who Pen Strong Dialogue
Reading is one of the best ways to study writing craft. Carve out time — I know, I know; this exercise takes away from actual writing time, but do it anyway! — to read books penned by writers who are known for dialogue skills. Don’t just read these writers, study them. Rather than immerse yourself in the plot, immerse yourself in the pages offering dialogue. Study how the writer weaves plot, words, and characters to reveal information and move the story forward.
A few of my favorites include James Herriot, or James Alfred Wight. Wight was a veterinarian-turned-writer who lived in the Yorkshire Dales, England. He expertly combined unique characters, outstanding dialogue (including accents and colloquialisms), and hilarious insight in his first few books.
Another favorite is P.G. Wodehouse and the Bertie Wooster series. Wodehouse was a master at using the fewest voice tags possible to convey the plot. Study a few pages of his work. You’d be amazed at how simple and short the dialogue phrases are, yet the plot and characters are clear.
Another fascinating study of dialogue is screenplays. Download one or two to analyze how screenwriters use dialogue to tell a story and reveal character. Studying plays works, too. I recommend Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Tempest. Don’t think you have to read the entire play. Peruse a few pages. Let the phrases speak to you. Ask yourself about the characters who are saying the words. Let your mind build upon what you’re reading. Use this creative study to reflect upon characters you’re building within your own books.
Take a Class in Dialogue Writing
As an educator, I recommend lifelong learning. Enroll in a class centered on writing dialogue. It can be a single-evening class or an entire series of classes devoted to the art of conversation. The point is to focus on the specific craft of writing dialogue. Just as a baker masters different aspects of bread dough, cakes, and cookies, a writer masters the different skills of dialogue, plot ascension, and character development.
I suggest classes specific to dialogue for a practical reason. Modern life is fast-paced. Readers have less time and willingness to digest paragraphs of description. Like it or not, quick-moving dialogue is a way to hook readers and tell a story. Becoming strong in the craft of dialogue will add value to you as a writer.
Overuse Adverbs to Learn to Show instead of Tell
“Adverbs? Absolutely!” she cried, enthusiastically. I suggest this exercise as a way to recognize what works and what doesn’t; it shows what’s necessary and what isn’t in terms of conversational description. Starting with a blank page, brainstorm a conversation between two or three people. Don’t think about it too much, just start writing. (The subject could be anything, the weather, a mother-in-law, or a favorite restaurant. Just be sure it’s a subject that needs an overt description.)
Think about the adverbs the characters would use to describe their interactions with each other and the subject. Go overboard at first. Use this free-writing exercise to reveal ideas within you, the writer. By overusing adverb descriptors, you’ll discover how your characters speak and act. Let your mind go! The adverbs should come to you freely, don’t interfere with the words that pop into your head as you write.
The adverbs will provide subconscious description; they will reveal how you want the characters to speak, to interact. Do this exercise for a page or two, then leave it; don’t revise the writing at this point. Walk away without reading what you’ve written. Come back to the page later to read what you’ve composed. The adverbs should have revealed the actions and words you want your characters to show. From this point, delete the adverbs that tell that story and see if you can revise the dialogue to show the story. Be specific. Show a character’s motivation and uniqueness by using phrases, accents, or verbs to convey the story that the adverbs had been telling.
Remove All Tags and Offer the Page to a Trusted Reader
I said that P.G. Wodehouse used few voice tags. Try a similar technique on a page of your dialogue. Other than an initial “said” or two — no more! — strike all other tags from a conversation between characters. Don’t hesitate. Delete those words and don’t worry if you think the action is confusing or difficult to follow. Give the edited pages to a reader whose opinion you trust. See if he or she can discern what’s happening. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at how few tags are necessary. If the dialogue is well done, the plot action and character identity and motivation will be clear from the language and descriptions you’ve expertly composed on the page without the need for voice tags.
I will not assert that writing dialogue is easy; in fact, I think it’s the hardest part of writing a novel. It takes expert skill to use minimal words via uniquely speaking characters to tell a compelling story. The ideas listed above should help.
As always, happy writing.
And happy summer!
~Tracey Kathryn, MA