Wednesday, August 22, 2012
WHO TALKS LIKE THAT? by Kathy Ivan
Okay, I'll confess. I love to eavesdrop on other people's conversations. In line at the grocery store, lunch or dinner at a restaurant, it doesn't matter to me. I freely admit I'm a card-carrying snoop. Little snippets of conversation take place all around us and sometimes you can learn the most amazing things. But what I really love is listening to HOW people talk. Not just the accents but the way they construct their sentences, the whispered inflections of speech. You can tell a whole heck of a lot about people by listening.
Which got me thinking about how my characters talk. I love to immerse the reader deep into the story, suck them right in so they forget they are reading and become truly involved with the people and places that I've tried to bring to live on the page. How they people in your story talk speaks volumes about who they are.
Let's do a little test. Pretend you're at a friend's house and overhear a conversation between Lisa and Frank, the couple you're visiting.
Lisa: "I need to go to the market. Is there anything you need?"
Frank: "Let me think about it. We need things for Saturday night when the fellows are coming to the house."
Lisa: "Oh, of course, dear. I will pick up some things for your friends."
If you read that in a story, you'd be yawn, boring, put the book down and never pick it up again (although the stilted conversation above where never get past any editor, believe me.) Instead, you want Lisa and Frank to come across as real people having a real conversation.
Lisa: "Honey, I'm going to the store. Need anything?"
Frank: "Snacks. Yeah, get snacks for the game Saturday night. Chips, dip. Oh and don't forget the beer."
Lisa: I won't forget, it's on the list. Where you wrote it—and underlined it—and put a big star next to it. Anything else?"
Frank: Um, don't forget toilet paper.
Not great examples, I know, but can you see the differences? Example #1 is very formal, stiff. No contractions, no emotion. It's blah, boring. Most real people don't talk like that. Example #2 covers the same basic conversation but hopefully these people seem more realistic. It feels more like a real conversation between two people who know each other well.
Make the people and conversations in your books feel more alive, more realistic by using contractions, accents, even foreign words when they're appropriate to the scene. Adding in dialog tags, emotions, inflections in tone and volume can all play an important part in making characters words flow and come alive.
Eavesdropping on conversations between your characters is a great way to hear the dialog, the conversational flow. Does it feel real? If you were sitting at the table next to your hero and heroine, would they sound like real people or the stilted formal Lisa and Frank from example #1?
The next time you're writing dialog, read it out loud, perk your ears up and eavesdrop. If it sounds like real people talking, having a real conversation, you'll never have the reader say, "Who talks like that?"