Do you eavesdrop?
If you’re a writer and you don’t eavesdrop, then you’re missing out on a treasure trove of inspiration and research. Listening to the world around you – yes, perhaps more than is polite – is a surefire way to realistically represent the world around you, no matter the setting, time period or characters.
Eavesdropping isn’t just about the stories or conversations you overhear – though write those good ones down! It’s about the way people speak, the hand movements, the facial expressions, the pauses, the self-effacing laughter, all these non-verbal elements that go into making any conversation feel real, regardless of the fictional nature of the story.
When writing dialogue in your books, you are looking for a happy medium, that place between the perfected, scripty dialogue flowing seamlessly from a writer’s pen, and the reality of how people interact with each other. Veer too far to one side, and your book sounds overly polished and unrealistic. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples where you were reading a book or watching a show and all you could think was people don’t talk like that.
Still, veer too far in the other direction and the dialogue, with its verbal tics, long pauses, coughs, interruptions and unintelligible dialect, will become a distraction from the story itself. Writing fiction books, no matter the genre, puts life in HD, clears up a few of the wrinkles, and leaves enough freckles to still feel accessible. Dialogue, as with everything else in your made up world, must strike that balance.
For example, you don’t need to write in every uh, well or um. I’ve been a journalist for years and my experience transcribing interviews has shown me that verbal tics are ubiquitous, subconscious and potentially annoying. But don’t avoid them entirely either. People pause. They sort out their thoughts. They judge how to proceed with a conversation based on how the other person is responding. Allow that reality to show through, but give it purpose to moving the story along. Dialogue, as with every great sex scene and death scene, must serve a higher purpose.
So how do you pockmark your story just enough to give it texture? Well, eavesdropping is a great start. Watch how a person telling an uncomfortable story might taper off or end abruptly. Look at the excited flail of arms as a woman recounts her new art project. Do your characters interrupt each other? Real people interrupt each other all the time. Do they repeat the beginning few words of a sentence – you’ll find someone telling a story does this often, and now that you know you won’t be able to stop looking for it.
Dialogue and interaction are part of the human condition. Whether your story takes place on a planet in outer space or the local library, the humanism of your characters and they way they behave toward one another is a surefire way to establish a believable reality. In truth, we swear, we leave our sentence incomplete, we check our phones at inopportune times and we change subjects without meaning to. Integrating some of these foibles and follies into your conversation, before you get to the words themselves, is an important way to make your story resonate as real.
Now go ahead and listen – inspiration is everywhere. ♦