Saturday, July 2, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 29: To learn to write dialogue, listen to people talk.

Writing dialogue is one of the most difficult things writers do. That must be the case, because so much of it is so awful. Think of all the times you’ve looked wide-eyed at a page or the silver screen and thought, no one talks like that!
To cure this ill, many writing instructors encourage students to eavesdrop on conversations and mimic that kind of speech.
Don’t do it.
Writing the way people really talk just might be worse than the stiff, stilted stuff that sometimes masquerades as dialogue.
Think about it. If you write the way people talk, your page will be peppered with “um” and “uh” and “I mean” and “y’know” and other fillers that are as natural as breathing to most people.
Then there are the useless, overused words we use. Decades ago, when I started paying attention to such things, some—many—people used “incredible” to describe anything and everything that struck their fancy. While the word is still overused, “awesome” eventually replaced it in the mouths of many. Nowadays, “amazing” has clawed its way to the top of the hackneyed heap. (Never mind the fact that the way we use those words has little to do with their actual meanings.)
Imagine your characters repeatedly using “amazing” to describe things—almost everything, really. Readers would never know if the object of their amazement was, say, delicious (or tasty) beautiful (or easy on the eyes) or smooth-gaited or soft or hard or warm or fast or thought-provoking or melodious or whatever. The generic descriptions people use in actual conversation—like “amazing” and “awesome”—make for dull, meaningless dialogue.
The trick isn’t to write like people talk. It’s to write dialogue that sounds like people talking—it’s more vivid, more descriptive, more “real” than the real thing. But it sounds like the real thing.
Stay tuned for a future installment on writing dialogue.
It will be amazing.

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