Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Radical Writing Advice: Dialogue

I'm sure someone told you at some point in your life to "stop staring; it's not polite." At least if you were raised in the USA. I can't speak for all cultures and ethnicities, of course, but I do know that in American society, it is considered rude to stare at another person.

photo from iprefercake
Looking at someone can be used with intent, however.

For example, at the restaurant, when your coffee cup is empty and nearly dry and the wait staff have passed your table by three times with the coffee pot? It's time to stare. Not meanly, but with intent. Look at them like you mean it and like if that person doesn't come fill your cup soon you are going to turn into a raving caffeine starved loud mouth, ahem, upset customer. Try to catch the staff's eye gaze. They'll get it. Or if there's this person you're interested in meeting, in possibly getting to know better, over time, maybe? Staring might be a little over the top, but you do want to look in that person's direction, friendly-like, let them know that you know they look interesting and you just might float each other's boats if they're willing to give you a try.

And the same thing goes for overheard conversations. Again, in America, we're told from when we're young to not be listening in on other people's conversations, that it isn't our business and we shouldn't go sticking our nose - or our ears - in it.

However, eavesdropping on conversations is exactly what we as writers should do.

I've heard some people say to use the television or radio (does anyone actually just listen to the radio anymore, unless they're driving or stuck without their MP3 player/iPod/nano-with-every-song-ever-recorded library?). Which is okay. If you want your characters to sound like the characters on the program, rather than a real live person on the street or in the cafe or at the mall.

Personally, I like my characters to breath and walk and sound like who they are. If I use other writers' ideas of how the bowling alley shoe clerk talks in my writing, then my dialogue risks sounding like a B-movie spinoff. And that DIY spinoff character of what will someday be a cult film is okay if that's what you're looking for in your piece.

If I don't want my protagonists to all sound like other people's characters, I need to listen to characters. The characters all around me. Because I also don't want all of my characters to sound like me.

Eavesdrop. That thing you've been told you're not supposed to do. But we do it anyway and, many of us at least, have some guilt about it. As writers, this is our field. Our research. Our beta testing ground.

No, scratch that. It's probably best to not try to introduce anything into the conversation or try to influence what is happening. Unless you're writing a story about someone who jumps into other people's conversations or someone whose plans are repeatedly interrupted by interlopers. Then you might test out interruption reactions, but I don't recommend it. Find another way; if you want to try it, anyway, drop me a note and let me know how that worked out for you.

The goal is to listen. I've found it useful to listen more than I talk; at least most of the time. And, I know, that is not an original statement or idea. But it's true. I usually learn so much more by just listening - whether that is in overheard conversations or in one-on-one conversations. If I talk and talk and talk, then the other person says less and I get to listen to myself all the time. Isn't it better to listen to the person I'm with at least half the time? I listen to my chatter enough, thank you.

photo from the Essential Japan Guide
Use your discretion, of course, when listening to conversations. Although, if there is an intimate disagreement happening at the two seats right next to you at the kaiten sushi bar, you can't help but hear it. What are their voices doing? What are the words they use? Do their voices change as the conversation heats up or cools down or as agreement is reached?  Do they start to "punch" their words and enunciate more clearly? Or do they trail off and mumble?

Make mental notes and physical notes if you can. If you're a tech geek or an experienced user of your mobile device, send yourself notes via text or email. At the notetaking stage, don't worry about the exact wording of how you'd describe it in a story. Make it shorthand or make it a sketch or whatever will help you remember the sound, the words, the feeling you have as you listen.

How do you know that couple in Starbucks just met and are considering starting to date? What is it you hear which gives you clues? What are the words and what goes beyond the words? Are there any movements that go with the words? Perhaps which contradict the words?

Restaurants and cafes are obvious places to go.

But you might also try a courthouse. Most trials are open to the public and anyone can sit in - at least in most places I know of. If you want to try this one, I suggest double-checking in your area if the laws are the same. Here, most trials are open and it will be posted (or doors locked, with guards standing by) if they aren't.

Go to the laundromat, even if you have a perfectly good washer and dryer set at home.

Try going to a restaurant and a food cart! I'm not sure how much food carts have taken off in other places, but here? We have lots of food carts. Big "cart villages" as someone recently said, and tiny groups of food carts shoved into little vacant spaces between buildings. These carts are bigger than the hot dog and hot nut and pretzel carts in NYC; these are small travel trailers or other similar sized vehicles parked, with food for sale. Look at the diners in both places, listen to the conversations. What is the same? What is different?

Go to the gym or the local community rec center. I've caught some great conversation snippets in the pool, at a popular senior center visit time, with someone holding forth on topics - in the pool, in the hot tub. My only problem with the pool is that I can only use what I can hold in my brain until I can get to a notetaking system of some kind. Somewhere I have a waterproof paper and pen; I should look for those. See if there is a difference in conversation between the pool users and the cardio machine users and the strengthening equipment. And how are the dead-lift users different than the runners or the walkers?

Go. Listen. Watch as you can to pick up accompanying gestures, a tilt of the head, eyebrow raises, widening or narrowing of eyes, and so on. And make notes. Use this to help you build dialogue for your characters which reads as real - because it is.

Stick your ears in someone else's conversation. Politely. Discretely. (And with a little common sense; you know, sometimes "it just ain't right.") But do it. The authenticity of your characters' dialogue will benefit.

Although I will add that you probably don't want to stare while you're listening. It's not polite and it can be a conversation stopper.