Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do you eavesdrop?

I try not to be an eavesdropper, but sometimes you can’t avoid it when people are talking loudly in a café or coffee shop or on a bus or train. I think the most interesting ‘eavesdrop’ I ever heard was ‘Well, he had to kill her after that, didn’t he?’ I only hope the speaker was talking about a movie or something on TV!
Next time you’re with a group of people who are chatting together, take a mental step backwards for a few minutes and listen. The chances are the conversation will include a lot of half sentences or phrases, broken up by pauses or interruptions. Many people will start a sentence, hesitate, and then start again, or go off at a tangent. There’ll probably be plenty of words like ‘erm’ or ‘well’. Grammar rules will be broken. There will be very few ‘long’ words, and maybe some wrong words will be used.
We’re told we should write natural sounding dialogue in our stories. However, if we did this, our readers would probably become exasperated because much of it would be jerky, repetitive, even incomprehensible. I’m reminded of a TV mini-series about President Nixon where every so often the characters would reproduce some of the dialogue from the infamous tapes. It was glaringly obvious when they moved from the smooth scripted dialogue to the fragmentary dialogue of the tapes.
Writing dialogue as it tends to be used in everyday conversations would be equally as disastrous as having our characters speak to each other as if they were at a public meeting (to paraphrase how Queen Victoria complained about the way Gladstone spoke to her).
So how do we write dialogue?
The trick is to make the dialogue seem real without actually reproducing everything we normally hear in everyday speech e.g.
Omit ‘um’, ‘er’ and ‘well’, unless you specifically need your character to appear hesitant.
Use contractions – don’t, couldn’t, can’t etc.
Let your characters use short sentences, not long convoluted ones, or speak in phrases. Have them break off mid-sentence occasionally, or interrupt another character (but not all the time – unless that’s one of their bad habits!)
Don’t have them making ‘speeches’ (unless they really are making a speech). If they’re describing or explaining something, have the other person interrupt or ask a question, to avoid having any lengthy monologues.
Don’t use dialect that might be difficult for a reader to understand. Slip in an odd word to give a flavour of an accent or dialect, but let the reader imagine the rest.
Don’t have your characters calling each other by name all the time. Generally speaking, people don’t tend to do that.
Don’t turn a casual conversation into a stilted one or, conversely, into one that’s too flowery. I’ve read conversations that sound as if they have been lifted out of a 1930’s movie, and others where the heroine (and sometimes the hero too!) use ornate, fanciful phrases that people would never use in everyday speech.
A final tip is to read your characters’ conversations out loud. I can usually ‘hear’ my characters speaking in my mind – but there have been times when, on reading out loud, I’ve winced at what one of them has said, or how they’ve phrased it, and I’ve then changed it to something that hopefully sounds more natural.
What other tips do you have for writing dialogue?



  1. I just blogged about eavesdropping on a train last Friday! But I reckon the psychology student doing most of the talking wanted to be heard. Usually, I manage to block it out but this was too interesting.

  2. I love eavesdropping on random strangers when I'm by myself! It's fun and it often gives me story ideas (or at least a Facebook status update). When I was much younger, I had trouble writing dialogue. Now I find it easier, but it's still a challenge to make it seem real. Reading out loud is a great tip!

  3. Rosemary - I agree some overheard conversations (or monologues!) on trains, trams and buses can be fascinating, including people talking on their phones - once they get past the usual 'I'm on the train' opening!

    Jen - I'm usually okay with dialogue because I can see and hear my characters when they're talking - but I know I've improved some phrasing by reading their words out loud.

  4. As to advice when writing dialogue, I would add 'break dialogue with action.' A very long conversation is quite tiring to read, and it's often hard to think of dialogue tags to add - 'said'- gets boring fast. But if you have your characters doing something as they speak, then the action will help to tie the words to the speaker (for example, if one character is making a cup of tea, then the speaker can be filling the kettle, reaching for the teabags, that sort of thing). It's also a good way of building character during dialogue (which should also only be used to build story or character, incidentally). You can learn a lot about a person by the way they make a cup of tea. And whether or not they offer round the HobNobs....

  5. Great comment, Jane - especially about the Hobnobs :-D
    You're right about actions being good for breaking up long conversations. Opening a wine bottle, pouring out, and sipping or gulping is another possibility, of course.

  6. These are all great tips, Paula.

    One thing that I've learned when tagging dialoge is to use either a tag OR an action, not both. Sometimes a tag isn't needed at all. And stick with said, not cried, yelled, whispered, etc. Let the actual words covery the emotion.

  7. Good advice, Debra - also avoid adverbs after 'said'.

  8. A small crowded cafe is often rich for material, especially if there are a few tourists. I like listening to accents and dialects, local words etc. Try sprinkling a few into a character's conversation, but not too many and watch the spelling! Very short sentences work.

  9. Great topic Paula! I absorb words wherever I hear them. And not until this moment did I think I was eaves dropping! lol It's not that I pay attention to the conversation per se, but I do zone in on the diction. Born and raised in Chicago, there's no finer place to listen to ethnic influences in chatty people.

    When I create dialog, it's like I'm at sitting in a restaurant and the only other people there are having a chat so I can't help but listen. They use contractions, they pause, they butcher and botch syntax, and in Chicago, they'll ask, "where's my keys at?" Instead of "where are my keys?" I think giving our characters regional phraseology with patois and peculiarities can add depth to the tale. :) Nice chat.

  10. Antony - I agree about accents and dialects but, as you say, it's a case of sprinkling the words and making sure anyone who's unfamiliar with an accent can still tell what a character is saying.
    Thanks so much for visiting us!

  11. Thanks for your comment, Rose. I can 'see and hear' my characters talking too. Poeple have said they can 'hear' the English tone in my stories, something that I'm not really aware of, but my English phrasing of some things must be there. I like your example of a local phrase, but I'm wondering what Americans might make of some of our British phrases and regional accents!

  12. The "had to kill him" comment reminded me of the time a close friend who had many cats sent me a postcard that read, "Well, the neighbor boy and I buried Ann in the backyard." She was referring to a cat that had been killed by a dog, but I always wondered what the letter carrier thought if he read that!
    Regarding use of contractions, I use them in normal conversation, but I write SF and my avian alien professor never uses them, because I want to suggest that even though he speaks excellent English, still it's not his native language. Also, my intelligent termites are strangely formal little beasties in their speech habits and so I never have them use contractions, either.

  13. Wonderful postcard comment, Lorinda! It would make a fantastic first line for a novel!
    And that's interesting about not using contractions in SF. I think the same could apply to writing historical novels, especially medieval. I'm not sure just when contractions started to be used in everyday speech.

  14. good points about dialogue! I always find with my students the hardest habit to break is to use dialogue as a means to get across information rather than convey character and the relationship between characters. Phone conversations i fiction rarely come off well, and good reason for that

  15. Sandra, that's so true - the conveying of info with the 'as you know' phrase is taboo! Phone conversations can work sometimes, as long as they move the plot forward.

  16. Hi Paula

    My two-bits. 1) the novelist should know her characters well enough to be able to hear their voices. In editing, I often get MS in which every person sounds the same. In reality, none should sound the same. 2) limit dialogue to three lines. In conversation, rarely does one person speak a soliloquy that goes on and on without a break. Of course the break does not have to be another person. The writer can break to show body language (which adds to the verisimilitude of the dialogue), the speaker's or the listeners'. 3) Whenever possible, let dialogue carry the story (yes, I know it's not possible in every genre). Robert B. Parker does an excellent job of using dialogue to carry the story, and Spencer and Susan have a love affair going on through the Spencer novels that rivals any romance.

    Not all that helpful, but a comment none the less.

  17. Some very good points there, thanks Chuck. I agree about limiting dialogue (or at least breaking it up)

  18. Great advice about dialogue. I think one of the most difficult character dialogues to write is the character that uses some foriegn words. You have to know how much authentic language to use without slowing the pace and how to convey what the words mean in Engish without seeming unnatural.
    Great subject.
    All the best.

  19. Sarah, I had to use some Egyptian words and phrases in my latest release - I double-checked them all as much as I could, and just hope I got them right. Using two or three French phrases in another novel was easy by comparison with Egyptian/Arabic!

  20. I agree with everything you said, Paula, and really don't have anything to add - except - the most interesting conversation I overheard was between two ancient 'blue stockings' in an Oxford pub. They were discussing the horrors of nuclear war and one said, "I sometimes wonder if we are like the Jews in Nazi Germany - disaster looming over our heads and we're doing nothing about it. I've seriously been considering moving to Australia."
    "I know how you feel, Dear," the other replied. "But wouldn't it be awful if you moved to Australia and they DIDN'T drop the bomb."

  21. I'm still giggling over that story, Jenny!

  22. I think dialogue is the most difficult part of novel writing. If only I had Alan Bennetts ear, AND memory. How often have I overheard something, sworn to myself I'd remember it, and the next instant it's gone. I have to dig v deep to come up with naturalistic dialogue. gx

  23. I'm the opposite, Gilli - I love writing dialogue once I can 'hear' the characters' voices. I was once stuck on a character's voice until I suddenly realised he talked rather like Simon Cowell (he didn't look liked him though, LOL!). My current hero talks like a guy I knew in the Lake District about twenty years ago!

  24. What an excellent post, Paula. Well done.
    I'm a compulsive eavesdropper when I'm out and about, I'm afraid. You hear such gems! I actually started one of my novels with one of the heroines picking up random snatches of conversation on a school playground.
    As for the rules - I can't think of any fresh ones to add that haven't been shared in the comments - so thank you everyone for the great advice.