Friday, October 15, 2010

The Voices in My Head Say Strange Things Sometimes

This semester, I am taking a class called Personal Essay. It's exactly what it sounds like - a form of creative nonfiction that essentially encompasses a mini autobiography (so instead of telling you about my entire life, I get to tell you about this one time at band camp... (no, I was never at band camp, I just couldn't resist)).

One of the things my professor talks about a lot is dialogue, and how to make it sound natural. We did a free-write style activity where we had to chronicle a recent conversation we had had, making all the people involved sound distinctive and, well, like themselves.


I wrote down the conversation I had with my made-of-awesome roommate when I was freaking out over an Italian presentation I had to do. And I could get the me-freaking-out part just fine. But the her-being-reassuring part? Needless to say, I did not volunteer to read it aloud to the class.

After a few brave people did volunteer, my professor asked us what we thought about the exercise. I told him I thought it was really difficult, because I am used to fiction, where you literally know every facet of your character. You know what they are going to say, how they say it, how they sound when they say it, and why they say it.

Even if, as my professor suggested, you write down or tape conversations with others to get their mode of speech right, there won't ever be a time in real life when you know all of that. I don't think I could even get my best friend down perfectly.

Goodness, but real people are so difficult. :P I find it easier to make realistic sounding dialogue out of nothing than to take a real conversation and keep it from sounding fake. How weird is that?

So what I would like to know is this: how do you approach dialogue? Do your characters ever say things that surprise you? What do you do when they start sounding, well, not like themselves? Do you plan out every single little thing they are going to say? Dialogue is important; it shows an awful lot about a character (or, in the case of my class, a real person). So how do you guys go about creating realistic sounding dialogue out of nothing?


  1. I approach dialogue two ways. The conversation should follow some basic logic of the scene and convey the needed info. Secondly I got the best advice ever from a book on writing screenplays (I have everal from my days scripting comics) and that is the dialogue hould be as short as possible.

    Aide form that though I am epic fail at writing odd speech patterns, accents, and the sort of 'lingo' speak of more specialized characters- say gangsters or drug dealers or something.

    So I may not be the one to listen to! LOL!

  2. Hmm to be honest, I don't quite know how I do it haha. I always considered the fact that I was a listener rather than a speaker helps me out. I'd just sit back and let others talk when I'm in a group setting. (And apparently that works because I hear over and over how realistic my dialogue usually is :D )

    There are times when my characters don't quite sound like themselves, but I've learned to just close my eyes and imagine the scene in my head over and over again until the right words come along.

    But yeah, awesome post!

  3. OMG, I was just going to say...I don't really know how I do it and then I saw Karla's comment LOL. It's wierd, but I've been told by a few people that I do dialogue really well. I have no idea how I do it other than I feel like I know my characters so well and they are all so different and they have little phrases or words that they use that that are distinctive to them. I guess it's in their voice. They each have a strong voice and therfore their dialogue seems to match them well. Once in a while, I do have a slip up and something a character says may seem unlike them and my betas are quick to point them out. Who knows what is going on when I do that. Perhaps I'm writing when I'm too tired, or I got distracted by the kids or I hadn't written anything for a couple of days and kind of got out of their head, but as I continue to write I get back in it. I don't know. It's weird. I think it also helps that I grew up in a very multi-cultural environment in NYC where my friends were of all different ethincities, religions and cultures and that really helped me to pick up on all kinds of differences in spoken language, actions, and behaviors etc. My books tend to have multi-cultural characters as well and so that gives me the opportunity to have different very different voices with different styles to dialogue. I'm not saying that you can't have a group of people who are similar in background and upbringing and not have very different voices, just that I think there is something to say for growing up with that.

  4. That honestly sounds like such an awesome class.

    I approach dialogue by talking to myself. Seriously. Whenever I'm doing a mindless task like laundry or the dishes (and occasionally homework), I'll talk out one of my scenes. I find the words come much easier when I do that than when I'm staring at a Word document. It also helps me to hear the character's voices.

    That said, I don't always do that, and the dialogue ALWAYS changes from what I say to what I write. That just gets me started. I don't know, I'm not really sure how I write dialogue, but it's the easiest thing for me to write (whether or not that means I'm any good at it is debatable). I find narration to be much more difficult.

  5. I've no idea how either, I'm afraid ;) I do try to read it out loud, because you get a much better sense of rhythm that way, but other than that? I just write what the voices in my head tell me to write ;)

  6. Also, not to spam your blog, but I've a blog award for you at my blog!

  7. Hi Caitlin. I saw you mentioned over at Merieke's blog and thought I'd stop by to say hello. Nice meeting you, I've enjoyed my visit.

  8. Thank you everyone for your really thoughtful comments!