Writer’s Wednesday: Spice Up Your Conversations
Writer’s Wednesday with Chase Ambler
Next time you’re within earshot of a conversation have a listen, but don’t eavesdrop for content instead listen as a writer. Listen for ways to improve your own dialogue and scenes. Too often, I find myself writing a conversation as it would play out logically, but that’s not how people usually talk nor is it interesting.
People often cut each other off, speak over each other, only partially answer questions or even speak completely tangentially. They mishear words, they mistake meanings, and sometimes they get angry and don’t even hear the other person’s argument. Without these human dynamics, conversations become robotic and uninteresting.
Of course, in your fiction, any dialogue should not just be interesting. It needs to have purpose. Dialogue should further the story line or giving deeper insight into your characters (hopefully both simultaneously). If it’s not, cut it.
Bear with these horrible examples . . .
Art asked, “What are you doing tonight?”
“I have a psych paper due tomorrow,” replied Sophia, “I still need to find five more sources to use. I’m going to be at the library all night.”
“But there’s a Seinfeld marathon on,” said Art. “I thought you could come over.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to watch it without me,” she said flatly.
So there we have a simple, boring conversation. But what if we approach it in a more human fashion? What if we reveal even more about each character in doing so? What if each character approaches the conversation with conflicting intentions?
“Hey!” Art flagged Sophia down, who suddenly looked like she had somewhere to go. “What’re you up—”
“Can’t talk. Psych paper due tomorrow,” Sophia blurted out.
“Man, I can’t even hook you with Seinfeld? There’s a marathon on.”
“Tempting. But Josh’ll kill me if I’m back late.” She started making a beeline for the library.
“I’ll pummel him if he lays a finger on you,” Art said with a joking smile. He quickened his pace to catch up to her.
“I still need five more sources,” Sophia said, ignoring the threat Art just made, “before I can even start writing.”
“D’you need help? I’m not doing anything anyway.”
“When does the library close?” Her shoes clicked along the narrow cobblestone path between two of the university’s buildings.
“Um, ten I think.”
“. . . and weren’t you watching Seinfeld?” She cocked her head, glancing sideways at Art.
“Naw, I mean, just if you wanted—”
“Look, we’re just friends, right? I know that. You know that. But Josh is the jealous type. He won’t admit it, but if I’m spending time with guys, and he’s not around, Hell’s going to break loose. You’ll have to watch it without me . . . sorry.”
I’m not saying that my poor attempt at a conversation is great, but at least it shows more about each character and starts to mimic a real meeting between two people—well, more than the first example.
What we can learn from Example 1: Art asks Sophia to hang out. Sophia declines because she has a deadline.
What we can learn from Example 2: Art asks Sophia to hang out. Sophia does everything in her power to get Art to leave her alone, and when it doesn’t work she has to confront Art’s interest in her—but not straight on. She skirts the subject by reiterating that she is in a relationship and that Art and her are friends, suggesting that anything more is out of the question. While Sophia states that her boyfriend is the jealous one, the dialogue reveals that Art is the real person who’s jealous in this love triangle. In addition, Sophia tries to take control and drive the conversation by cutting Art off multiple times. There is a power struggle that is nonexistent in example 1, and that’s why it’s more interesting.
Some writers have a gift for dialogue and conversation, and then there are writers who really have to work at it (like me). After writing a section, try reading it out loud. Does it sound realistic? Does it sound like two different people talking (and if it’s part of a longer work, do the voices of each character stay consistent throughout), or do their voices sound much too similar?
If you’d like you can try to take Example 1 from above and write your own version. Maybe in your story Sophia suspects Art of being the campus creeper that’s been harassing women late at night. Maybe Sophia is the one interested in Art but is torn by school commitment. Maybe the two are having an affair together and cheating on their significant others. Whatever you decide, try to work each’s intent into the scene in a way that seems realistic while grabbing some of those speech patterns that you hear in the real world around you.
Chase Ambler is an American writer who spent his childhood in South and Southeast Asia. His life has been shaped by strange obsessions: heavy metal music, mountains, travel, and soccer. These subjects have all molded his poetry and prose in some way, but the birth of his daughter may have the greatest impact yet. He lives with his wife, baby daughter, and dog in Colorado. If one went looking for Chase, they could find him anywhere from changing diapers to summiting 14,000 foot mountains, but odds are he’s in front of the computer working on his next novel. Visit the FB page for his Novel: Snowsong