At this stage in my still-to-be completed novel, I have been having difficulty with the dialogue. As a first step, I purchased “Writing Dialogue” by Tom Chiarella, which is a great book, and I highly recommend it. In Tom’s book, there are a number of exercises for gathering dialogue, as well as recognizing the nuances and rhythm of the way we say things.
The first exercise I decided on was to carry a notebook with me everywhere and write down the last statement/phrase that I said when talking to someone. I thought it would be boring, but feeling open-minded (and a bit desperate to fix my dialogue problems), I went for it. Boy, was I wrong about boring! It is amazing what comes out of my mouth some days!
I learned that there are catch phrases that I use too often: “Right on” and “that’s funny,” being the worst offenders.
And then there are the one-offs that probably won’t be said again in the history of mankind, although, I have come to realize that parents do tend to put together phrases that you just never would conceive of hearing, like:
“Grover, stop licking the sofa!” and: “Don’t do it again; when you lick the DVDs, it makes the machine sticky!”
If nothing more, I learned through that exercise that my son licks too many things that are not really ‘lick-able’!
The next exercise was to “Crowd.” This is when you go to a public place and basically eavesdrop on conversations. Typically, a mall is a great place for people-watching, but for dialogue-listening, I find that the echoed voices create too much of a din to properly hear conversations. I decided on our local bookshop, which is equipped with a handy coffee shop.
With Grover as my ‘cover’, (I mean, how much more unassuming can a tot and a mom playing ‘go fish’ be?) we headed to the circle of chairs to set up our… erm… dialogue sting. I was hopeful; there was a pair of middle-aged men sitting in two of the chairs engaged in conversation, stern conversation I gathered from their expressions. I settled into a chair in the corner and gave Grove my credit card to get a hot cocoa from the counter (probably won’t be able to to that much longer; he’ll be coming back with more than hot cocoa before long!).
Man with beard: “I know, I know. I told her she should make her amends before–”
Man with beanie: “Before it’s too late, but it was.”
Man with beard: “Bitterness, man… Bitterness will eat you up and kill you from the inside out.”
Man with beanie: “I know; I told my niece the same thing before her mother died… Ate her up… Can’t take it back now.”
Man with beard: “You want another lemon cake?”
Man with beanie: “Yeah, alright.”
They got up and went to wait in line behind Grover, who, already exerting his independence, was receiving, not only a cocoa, but a plate with a doughnut on it, complete with frosting and yellow sprinkles. Grover came back to me, proud of his sticky accomplishment. I quickly fished my credit card out of his pocket.
Grove and I were halfway through a game of ‘go fish’ by the time another dialogue opportunity sauntered in and plopped down in chairs close to us. They were a pair of teens; a tall, thin boy with just a bit of fuzz on his chin, and a short girl close in age to the boy, with a light pink flush on her cheeks and ears; obvious hints of infatuation.
I got my notebook ready and pulled my secret weapon for Grover out of my purse: A new “Charlie and Lola” book I had purchased in secret. Grove took the book with relish, and I brandished my pen…
Boy: “You don’t want anything, do you?” (Code for: I’m broke; I can’t buy you a coffee.)
Girl: “No, I’m fine; I’m not even hungry… at all.” (Code for: I’m starving, but I know you’re broke.)
Girl: “So it was, like, totally cold today!”
Boy: “Yeah, I guess.”
Girl: “Yeah… and I was, like, waiting at the bus stop, and, like, was gonna go in an’ get a sweater, but like, I knew my mom wouldn’t gimme a ride to school if I missed the bus, so I just, like, froze.”
Girl: “So… yeah.”
Girl: “So cold…”
I looked up from my notebook at this point; partially because Grover was beginning to vibrate from the cocoa/doughnut combination, and partly to check and make sure the boy hadn’t gone into a coma. The boy was sitting in the armchair with his chin in his hand, stroking the tuft of hair with his pinkie while the girl sat in the chair kitty-corner to his, looking at her fingernails, but stealing glances at the boy (perhaps wondering herself if he had, indeed, fallen into some sort of coma).
I don’t suppose using the second conversation in writing will win any O’Henry awards, however, the act of paying close attention to everything that accompanies a conversation will help to build our ability to write more effective dialogue.
My challenge to you: Get yourself a notebook and steal away! Learn the art of lurking for dialogue, and it will improve your skill… at the very least, you’ll have fun feeling like a spy!