by Will Viharo
Having a good ear for dialogue is an essential attribute of the conscientious fiction writer (or even non-fiction transcriber), just as a good ear for music is a crucial quality for any diligent musician.
But before you can strive for individuality of expression in the overcrowded literary marketplace, you first need to know the basics of creating imaginary exchanges that ring true, regardless of the creative context or your signature style...
Readers by and large prefer reading stories and books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that they can relate to on some level. Even if the experiences being conveyed extend far beyond the boundaries of their own backgrounds, there needs to be some element of reality that resonates with the audience’s own personality, character, philosophy and/or life story.
Other than telling stories that are compelling, one key ingredient to the artistic and commercial success of any book is the authenticity of the characters, whether they’re based on real figures or are completely contrived.
Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, playwright David Mamet, and author J.D. Salinger each perfected their own unique conversational rhythms that make their work immediately identifiable and distinctive. However, not all fictional characters mimic the speaking patterns of their real world counterparts.
Painting a vivid portrait of the people populating your pages partly involves carefully concocted backstories and detailed physical descriptions to evoke images of living, breathing human beings in the reader’s mind.
But it’s their interaction with one another that will ultimately flesh out their fantasy composition into something virtually corporeal, not just cerebral in nature.
Eavesdrop 'Til You Drop
When you’re sitting on a park bench or in a café or a doctor’s office, or anyplace a wide variety of people congregate for social reasons, don’t just watch them, listen to them. If you’re not a journalist by trade, accustomed to conducting sundry interviews with a broad spectrum of the public, you could even practice by recording conversations between your friends and yourself, to get an idea of how actual speech is randomly structured, varying according to both the speaker and the circumstances, not to mention the mood of the situation.
You also learn by reading the masters. Remember the books that really stayed with you from your youth? Ask yourself why they still linger in your consciousness. No doubt it was at least somewhat due to the complexity of the characters, and how they expressed themselves. Now go back and don’t just re-read your favorite books, study them. You will probably re-discover a certain musicality to the text that comes from both the descriptions and the dialogue.
But it’s also important not to copy another author’s style. Mining published and popular work for inspiration is both common and advised, but this is where the individual voice comes into play, and you only discover your own by rehearsing and refining it, just like any other instrument.
Just Listen To Yourself!
Now, after all these exercises, when you go back and face the blank page, you won’t feel so daunted. Just start transcribing either conversations you’ve taped, or remember, or hear in your own head (assuming those voices aren’t induced by mental delusions or medication, prescribed or otherwise!).
Next, read it back to yourself out loud. Does the dialogue you’ve just written echo actual discussions you’ve engaged in or overheard?
If not, start over from scratch, and don’t try so hard this time. Keeping it moving naturally, without forcing any words that may sound “good,” but not necessarily “true.”
If so, keep the conversation going, just as a matter of pre-game practice, even if the characters suddenly go “off topic,” like they’re trading comments on a broad topic in a Facebook forum. Don’t censor or control them. Just let them go.
If your characters sound real to you, they will most likely sound real to the reader, and then they will literally speak for themselves.
How important is realistic dialogue to you when reading or writing a story?