Hard ConversationsThey say that writing dialogue is not easy. They tell you that you’ll struggle with it.

I ask: What do they know?

Sure, we’ve all read lousy dialogue, dialogue that’s bad to the point where you know no one would actually say it the way it’s written. Writers write in two dimensions, while allowing readers to envision the third. That kind of leap, from two to three, takes dialogue that’s as close to authentic as it can get.

My first book, Upside Down Kingdom, has about 60 speaking characters in it, each with a different voice. The end result is that nearly half of the book is dialogue. There are ways to pull this off, and they begin with two very important things to avoid.

One: There shouldn’t be evidence of the writer in the conversation, unless you’re going to pull off a French Lieutenant’s Woman moment where the author sits on a train and speaks directly to the reader about the flip of the coin to decide how the story will end and what will get told and what will remain hidden. [I’m pretty sure this was Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and not his The Magus, but if I have it backward, please let me know.]

And Two: There should not be the situation of the writer’s plan getting in the way. Details like, “Hello, George, my brother with the bad leg from that shark attack. How are you this fine, December the 9th?” do not belong in dialogue as a way of giving background (unless they’re funny, in which case, have at it).

Authentic dialogue means listening to the way people actually talk, listening to how they form their words. If I taught this stuff, I’d send my students out to a restaurant to listen in, and the assignment would be to write a paper based on who is telling the truth, and who is hiding something.

This is not to say that all people are sitting around being deceptive in their speech. Quite the opposite, in fact. We reveal the truth and we hide the truth, and we use word choice to accomplish both. When you can write that paper and explain hidden motives based solely on a character’s word choice, you’re ready to write great dialogue.

So listen intently. And listen for what’s not being said.

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Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

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