Anyone ever eavesdrop on a conversation going on nearby? Perhaps a group on the beach one spot over from you; a family with three small kids strategizing over where they will add the next tower to their sand castle when suddenly the mother scolds little Johnny as he throws sand at his unsuspecting sister. Her husband quietly lifts himself out of the sand and cradles his crying daughter, wiping sand from her face before turning to Johnny to explain the rules of the beach. He tells a story from his own childhood to bring the point home and you’re swept away with the children, listening, seeing, feeling, as they ask questions while the father answers. Their dialogue paints a picture as clear as if the scene he spoke of were happening right in front of you. Or in the hair salon when Ron tells the client in his chair, next to you, about his nasty divorce and how his ex-wife robs him blind every week, catching his son in the middle. The client asks questions and makes comments which prompts more explanation. Or in line at the grocery store when the elderly couple in front of you talks to one another about the daughter they haven’t seen in two years who is arriving at the airport the next morning with her husband and five month old son. You can feel their joy as the woman asks her husband if he emptied his tools and extra clothes from the guest room so that they will feel comfortable enough to want to stay longer. “You put in those dimmer bulbs like I asked you to, right Ralph?” she nudges him. He smiles “Yes, Eve. Everything is ready. Stop worrying. Everyone will be fine.” He slides his arm around her neck as their food glides across the conveyer belt. He kisses her cheek just before the cashier registers their last item. You watch and you listen and a piece of you wonders what caused the family to separate. You hope it all works out for them.
In dialogue, we feel what the character feels. We see what he sees. Basically, we glimpse who he is and a piece of his world by the words he chooses and the way he says them. The questions that are asked, the answers given or not given, the pauses of silence, the hesitations, the reluctance to answer, the insecurity or pain in the way he speaks. Dialogue is a powerful tool for a writer and a window into a person’s character for an observer (or a regular person). Often, a narration or description will not convey the emotion or the meaning as clearly as listening to the characters talk.
I was never good at noticing REAL dialogue. Too busy with my own life and the noise in my own mind to step outside myself to eavesdrop on others. However, as a writer I have learned to take the time outside my head to observe the world around me and one very important way to do that is to listen in on the conversations hovering about, regardless of where I am. I may use them one day in a story or I may gain a new perspective about something I didn’t know before. Either way, I am better off.
In Elizabeth Sims’ article in Writers Digest January 2015, tilted “How to craft Flawless Dialogue”, she tells us:
Dialogue is not only a vehicle for adding life to your characters, but also for revealing who they really are. Let your characters’ words betray their opinions.
Regretfully, people do not always say what they mean and mean what they say, but if you listen carefully when they are not aware that you’re listening, you will get a feel for the truth. When their guard is down, their dialogue will always betray them.
Ms. Sims sums up her article with the following advice for writers:
. Break up mega- paragraphs, whether narrative or dialogue. That is, let neither your narrator nor your characters get long-winded.
. Opt for dialogue over narration when possible. If it needs to be said, can dialogue do it?
. Be as sparing with dialogue as with description.
. If you feel your characters are flat, ask yourself if they’re talking enough.
. Trust your beta readers. If your reliable writing group, agent or editor says there’s too much dialogue or not enough, consider tinkering.
Whether you are a writer trying to convey a scene or a regular person (my term for people who do not write but still want to hear advice on how to live joyful, happy lives), listen in on the dialogue of life around you. Get outside your own head and be present in the heads and lives of others. By learning the benefits of dialogue, the way people tell their own stories through everyday conversation, your writing ( and your life) will sparkle instead of withering away like a deflated balloon that has lost air, falling flat.