Sparked by Words

Talk Talk

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Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk.

Rant, whisper, inform.

Stutter, harangue, order.

Insult, complain, gossip.

Coo.

Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night.

Talk talk.

If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, the way I say it. “So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know?” Oof, a terrible take. That sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.

Take two. “I happened to have encountered both of Nancy’s college children while Sam and I were negotiating the purchase of a new automobile.” Whew, not much better. Other than the queen, who talks like that? Not her either.

My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like someone who can’t grab a mouthful of articulate thoughts out of a spoon or it sounds formal, as if pretentious phrasing had been a college class aced by my characters. No one understands anything said by Spoon Girl while College Pretender talks about everything without saying a word. The delete button was invented for prevention of dialogue meltdowns and failures.

As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop on people around me, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can export to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses, the little white lies gather, and motive becomes apparent.

Read great literature to discover brilliant conversation. A character pulls the mask over his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.

 

[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

 

[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]

 

The dialogue is simply stated, but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.

Applying everything I know academically about dialogue demands a moon’s orbit of time, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck hauled to the scrap heap. In my second novel, two teenage girls park on a hill and wring their hearts out in a chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. Each girl learns that words can only tell part of their stories, given that the meaning of words assumed to be mutually clear is stymied by naiveté or enriched by experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up sobbing. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.

Often it’s not what’s spoken but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires a writer to trust readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent, but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can usefully describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience intuits her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue. It’s hard to find a better mentor.

My most recent WIP takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers. A great deal of the story involves dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or nonsensical, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior – pointing, wandering, laughing. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by scenes where the dialogue is muddled but the intentions transparent. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.

I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth.

Talk talk, just say something worth reading.

 

Conversation image courtesy: comicbookplus.com, public domain images

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Comments on: "Talk Talk" (37)

  1. Really enjoyed this post. I love tweaking (almost wrote twerking) dialog after the first draft! I think of movies and shows I’ve loved and some of my favorite ones are the ones where people don’t really talk the way people talk. Whit Stillman’s trilogy of movies starting with Metropolitan delights me every time I watch it. Lorelei Gilmore in the Gilmore Girls doesn’t speak normal all the time either. I get what you’re saying but as with all rules some writers do a great job breaking them.

    BTW, I hit something on my blog and ended up sending your comment to the trash (no idea where the trash is)–but I’d almost move to Texas just for the bluebells if it wasn’t hot there.

    Have a great week, Sharon!

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    • You’ve got me laughing out loud, Adrienne. Handled well, a good writer can convey anything, a weak writer garners raspberries. You wrote a great line of dialogue as proof of your position but I know you’re not moving to Texas – too many darling goats at your place. I, however, just looked outside hoping to see the bluebells. Aren’t there, so I might have to mosey on over to your blog again to catch another glimpse of Onderdonk’s painting.

      Thanks for the visit here, and enjoy your own week.

      Like

  2. Dialogue has to both sound authentic and be different. Leave out the predictable parts, add mystery, give it a reason. That’s not why most of us talk–it’s verbal grooming. To make us feel better. Not at all its purpose in writing. That’s why people like you and I have trouble with it.

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    • An excellent observation, Jacqui, thank you for pointing this out. Much of what’s in story dialogue is not there at all. Readers glean between the words. We do this in real conversation as well – what did she mean by that?

      Like

  3. Eavesdropping!!!!!!!!! Shari!!!!!!! Not YOU!!!!!! From now on I’m only e-mailing . . . or cooing.

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    • “Freddie, you’re such a good dog. Wanna go for a walk? Come on, then we’ll come home and share a hamburger. Good boy. Get your leash, I’ll be right there.”
      Yep, that’s me, the eavesdropper! heh heh heh

      BTW, you can coo anytime. One of my favorite foreign languages.

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  4. Imagine if we wrote dialogue realistic as conversations we hear on the bus or at the mall. Never get published. Good dialogue is one of the toughest things a writer has to get right. Each character has their own speech patterns, vocabulary, tone, favorite words, and so on.

    I myself fall into the habit of reading outloud to test my dialogue. It is the only way for me to be sure it sounds natural.

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    • I totally agree with you, Andrew. You’re’ completely correct: each character is unique in the way he/she speaks and must sound natural for him/her. I am such a big believer in reading out loud. I’ve written about it more than once and frequently suggest it in our writer’s critique group. I can nearly always spot a writer who doesn’t do it because their writing sounds stilted or off in big and subtle ways. I enjoy the process of putting myself in my character’s shoes and “acting” their part in my book – entertains me enormously, makes my husband raise his eyebrows. Then he remembers: his wife is a writer. He nods and moves on. I’ve caught so many clumsy sections of my work by reading aloud.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Reading aloud I find awkward scenes and dialogue. Repetitious words or phrases. It drives my wife crazy to hear me having these outloud readings, but it has to be done. Good post.

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      • It took my husband a very long time to figure out that I wasn’t crazy – well, not totally crazy anyway – and to ignore me as I talked my way through my books. I also used to practice lesson plans while driving by speaking them out loud. Then I’d glance over at other drivers and catch them staring at me – the crazy lady talking to herself. They probably figured I’m also the one pushing my toy poodle, dressed in her pink sparkly tutu, around the block in the leopard patterned baby carriage. Now with everyone on their cell phones 24-7, people don’t stare at me as much as I talk to myself while driving. They probably figure I’m yakking on phone and are grateful I’m not texting. Yep, I’ve kept the upstanding citizens of Orange County, California amused for decades.
        Just tell Allie it could be worse. And one day, people are gonna be lined up outside the bookstore, waiting for you to autograph your book, which you’ve dedicated to her.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Now, I often walk in the street wth my blue tooth in my ear. Unused, but giving the illusion that I am talking to someone. Allie begged me to do that to not be embarrassed in malls and on the bus. Aw thank you for your kind words.
        I keep dreaming of that day. I am afraid I will have to cut down on my blogging to get that done. Thank you.

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      • Blogs take a lot of time, requiring much interaction all over Blog Land as well as the prep of our material. I so enjoy it, I’m talking with friends all over the world. But it’s true that it’s kept me from the queries I must write – my fault for letting myself become distracted. Must cut back something, as you said.
        Having fun imagining the Chimp with his blue tooth as ornament. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, the blue tooth is an ornament. I have cut down by not blogging or reading on weekends, but honestly it’s still not enough time. I have too many blogs to follow (since I try to follow all who follow me). Not complaining, but it has become a full time job. I have to devote more time to queries and my projects.

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      • The problems of popularity
        Can cause one sobs or hilarity
        The choice is yours
        To respond or ignore
        And tempt the gods of parity

        Liked by 1 person

      • Laughing. Not even sure how to respond. I don’t like it when I see blogs where the author doesn’t respond to followers. I understand that a blog can become unmanageable, I am pretty much at that point myself. I also feel guilty about being followed and not following back. I may have to get over that.

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      • You are a popular primate. Maybe you can just send out banana peels. LOL
        I think there’s a way to limit how many times someone can “reply” to one post. You might want to try that, though in your case, you’ll be missing some pretty funny comments from your followers.
        Oh, to be the Prom King.

        Liked by 1 person

      • lol You are funny. I made adjustments to my following of blogs. That is where I saved some time. I wouldn’t want to limit the banter with friends. Laughing.

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      • It’s about choices and we are lucky to make them. Imagine if you blogged and no one read it? (A tree falls in the forest and no one hears it – does it make a sound anyway?)

        Liked by 1 person

      • A writer writes and no one reads it. That is a sad thought. Yeah, I guess I prefer to stay busy.

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      • Have you considered getting a second computer so you can write on both at same time? Right hand writes books, left hand writes blog, occasionally crossing over to the other computer like clever piano playing.
        You’re well liked and that’s quite evident on your blog. You’re gonna stay a busy, busy chimp. (I think we’ve beaten this topic to death – LOL)

        Liked by 1 person

      • LOL I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but honestly, I have been working on 2 computers side by side. I have come to the conclusion I have to cut down to three days a week (for blogging). I currently spend between 8-9 hours a day blogging (mostly in reading blogs and answering mine). My projects can’t sit around waiting for me. Sorry, I have used you as a sounding board.
        You have been so helpful.

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      • Ha! I should have realized you probably write on two computers!

        Seriously, I don’t mind at all being your sounding board. In fact, I’m actually honored you consider my input worthwhile.

        Carrie Rubin just wrote on her blog that she’s closing it down. She’s going to convert it to a website for her novels and focus on writing books because her book writing pace is too slow.

        I keep reading about this problem all over the place – blog or write? Is it possible to create a balance without dumping all the rest of one’s life in the trash heap?

        Kristin Lamb wrote brilliantly on her blog about how writers must write and not make excuses about wanting to create the perfect story to keep from completing a book. I’ve completed 3 adult novels, have begun a fourth, have story ideas for at least 2 others, plus nearly a half dozen ideas and two completed manuscripts for children’s books. And I have an idea for a creative non-fiction work I intend to pursue. As little as I blog, and I have very few followers to follow or respond to, even my little blog takes more of my time than I have to devote to being a responsible blogger.

        I know someone else who blogged for a few years, grew a huge following, wrote often about how much she disliked her job, became a master about how to use social media to best effect, graciously promoted many other bloggers on her site, then left her job to devote herself almost entirely to blogging. Now she’s so much happier, her blog has taken on an entirely different persona, and she is a super star in the blogging world. But this is it for her, she enjoys blogging and has no desire to write and publish books as you and I do.

        Other folks insist that for unpublished authors to be considered by an agent, we must have active and professional looking blogs with content that showcases writing.

        So, what do we do? Partial blog, all out blog, drop the blog, cull our blog replies – no perfect answer out there. I guess we must each forge our own path.

        Remember when little Charlie Dickens got his books serialized in the local paper, a chapter at a time, paid for word by word? Those were the good ole days for writers.

        And BTW, Andrew, you’ve been extremely helpful to me. Always enjoy talking shop with you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. You have been a gold mine for me. All good points you bring up. I love blogging and it has been a full time job for me for the past four months. I love the banter, but it’s time to get back to my priorities. Thank you. I will always follow your blog. We will always be in touch.

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      • And someday we’ll meet – I just know it – at a bookstore, autographing each other’s best sellers. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sigh. That would be wonderful.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m with you on the eavesdropping. Nothing I hear is sacred. For writing dialogue I’m glad I’m an introvert and prefer to sit in silence, listening. It allows you to pick up so many features of dialogue such as accents, inflections, word usage for different people in society and differences in level of eduction. It also allows you to learn the dialogue of gesture – and these I think are perhaps one of the most informative tools the writer has. For the reader,I think, reading dialogue should also be like eavesdropping. It should give the writing authenticity. I love writing dialogue and the functions it performs. Because I enjoy writing it I use it where I can. I agree with you too Sharon that reading out loud is an essential part of the editing process. It certainly lets you know what jars and doesn’t sound right. I enjoyed you reminding me of Tom Sawyer and the white washing of the fence. I think it is time to get it out and have a re-read.I’m looking forward to reading your books Sharon. I am reading a book at the moment that is a good example of deflating the pivotal point. The number of adjectives attached to each noun is driving me mad as it is leaving me no room for my own visions to be released and soar. The other thing is the word usage in this book. Words not in common usage where a simple word would also have much more impact. Your WIP sounds interesting and I love that your are heaving your heart into your mouth. A great post Sharon.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Gestures are indeed important to observe because they often tell a different story than the one the dialogue says. Bodies slouching, eyes rolling, shoulders tensed, lips pursed, feet tapping, fingers rubbing on tables, occasional slaps, shoves, etc. I used to sit in a local bookstore cafe, pretending to write notes from an open textbook, when I was really copying down the words of the teenagers at the next table. I needed to pay attention to the way they spoke and interacted for something I was writing at the time. Teens are so different in the way they talk and socialize than adults. I got a lot of useful info that made its way, very altered of course, into one of my books. Standing at the outside, looking around, good strategy for writers.
      Thanks for your support, Irene. I’m working on getting published, but it’s a slow slog through country on the other side of the forest, and I’m traveling without a good map.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed the post and your back and forth with Lonely Author Andrew. I love reading dialog, but I can imagine writing it must be tough. I take the point too that it has to be realistic and give the essence of the character, but not be real. Actual dialog of the kind most of us speak most of the time would make a pretty boring and rather hard to follow book. You can see this when you look at transcripts of interviews. They can be extremely hard to follow unless they’re tidied up and condensed a bit.

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    • Thanks for reading this, Bun, I like hearing from you. I also enjoy chatting with Andrew of The Lonely Author Blog. He contributes thoughtful insight to my posts and often extends the conversation with other points of view.

      I write dialogue by first writing exactly the way I think people might talk to each other. Then I delete all the repetitive, off topic, and boring words and phrases. Next I add in current slang, colloquial phrases, and incorrect grammar if it’s warranted, i.e., “I don’t got to do that.” Or: “Her and I are best friends.” Or: “He don’t got none of that stuff.” I think about the kind of language a character might speak depending on his education, background, or if English is a second language. At this point, each character must sound unique to his persona. One character might be an unreliable narrator, saying things meant to mislead the listener in the story and the reader of the book.

      Next I’ll construct an appropriate activity around which the conversation might occur. In one of my books, a grandmother and granddaughter are making dinner while talking, so not only are they chopping and stirring, but the way they approach their tasks (working slowly or splashing or burning) lends insight into how they’re feeling about the conversation. It usually takes several days to get a single long conversation right, but I also spend at least three years on each book, not just to get the dialogue right, but everything about the book.

      I guess it’s time consuming, but I’m passionate about writing. The years are going to go by one way or another – might as well spend them achieving something I’m proud of.

      Interesting that you should bring up interview transcripts – they can be really boring. Do you do this as part of your job?

      Liked by 1 person

      • That sounds like a tremendous amount of work, but I take your point. Once you’ve decided to write a book, why not do it properly?

        As for interview transcripts, I’m thinking more of interviews I had to transcribe at university and also very occasional one-off writing jobs I did in the past where I’d tape an interview with someone and then have to write it up into a short article later.

        When I was listening to the replies at the time, I found them perfectly understandable, but I quickly realized how incoherent and repetitive it sounded if I just wrote everything down precisely as spoken.

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      • Except for legal or academic purposes, interviews aren’t often made available without editing for exactly the reasons you state here. Historians and biographers learn to identify essential elements and relate them meaningfully without the repetition. That’s why writing convincing dialogue is harder and more time consuming than it looks.

        Our writers’ critique group recently read part of a story with a large amount of dialogue submitted by one of our members. On first read, it sounded authentic. But a closer evaluation showed the dialogue to be inconsistent with the background and ethnicity of the speakers, and it sounded false and pretentious. I think the writer is planning to change at least some of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a tough gig–not speaking exactly as people do, but making your dialogue sound natural. Trying atypical dialogue (like Alzheimer’s patients) would be doubly hard. But you can write, lady. I’m sure you’ll rise to the challenge. 🙂

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    • Wow, Cathleen, your last sentence – thank you very much!

      I’ve spent many, many hours the last six years visiting with my mom who lives in an Alzheimer’s residence. Sometimes I’ll copy in my notebook exactly what folks say if I hear an unusual comment, but by now, I know the way they talk – or don’t. Unrelentingly awful disease.

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  8. Okay, at the beginning of this post my mind was shouting YES!!!, another poem…ha, alas it instead became an entertaining way to learn how to tackle writing conversation. I’m not a conversationalist. Not. At. All. But I enjoy listening. I see, as I write, where my stories will always suffer. Not afraid of the climb, but it is uphill. 😉

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    • Did start with a bit of poesy, didn’t it? I hope I made you laugh at least. Lots of writers get tangled with conversation woes. As you note, it really isn’t how much you talk as how much you listen. Have more faith in yourself. Your poetry shows your strong powers of observation. You might try short stories first – there’s less pressure because you don’t have to sustain so much for three or four hundred pages.

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