Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Shhh… don’t tell, but sometimes being a writer makes me feel a bit like a spy. As a kid, I spent a lot of time observing people. I was—and still am—intrigued by the way people think, talk and act. Of course, when you’re in school, there are so many opportunities to observe human nature, to overhear bits of conversations, to examine the various ways people choose to express themselves from one day to the next.

In college, my Playwriting professor gave me an assignment—to spy on someone, tape record a short conversation, and write it down verbatim (of course, we changed names to protect the innocent). The purpose of the exercise was to see how people really talked, to see if “real life” conversations would translate well to the stage or page, to see if and how they might need to be modified. Often, they did need to be modified—for clarity or because when real people talk, they so often interrupt each other, use fillers like ‘um’ and ‘uh’, or fail to finish sentences. If that’s overdone in a book, the dialogue ends up sounding stilted, not quite right. The key, we decided, was listening to the rhythms of speech.

Sometimes when I'm at a college campus, coffee shop, or park, I just sit and listen to the sounds of life swirling around. I’m not really spying on anyone, but I catch little phrases here and there, note expressions on people’s faces, and see how body language tells its own story.

Do any other writers out there sometimes feel like a spy, watching the world? Do you take inspiration for dialogue from your personal experiences, imagination, or strangers in passing? How do you come up with the words your characters say? Have you read any books with fabulous dialogue lately?

Prost!
Ingrid

5 comments:

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I'm not a writer, but I thought this post was really interesting. It reminds me of the book Maine, they characters talk about people being weary around writers because they are afraid to be written into a book.

sonje said...

Dialogue in particular comes pretty easy to me. I love writing dialogue. I've never purposefully gone out and spied on people to get ideas for dialogue or interactions, but sometimes someone says something that I think is really great--and usually unexpected--and I'll make a note of it for future use.

Kristan said...

Hehe, oh Ing, the idea of YOU -- sweet little you -- sitting on a bench in a park, peering over a notebook, while you secretly take in all the dialogue and other details around you, is too cute/amusing.

But yeah, listening and observing are great exercises for a writer. (I *think* I had to do that in college...)

As a writer, I definitely read my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like something people would actually say.

As a reader, I knock points off a book if the dialogue feels stilted or phony. It's one of the first things I notice, and it's hard to get past.

Some YA books that I think have particularly good dialogue are Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie perkins and The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. Particularly in Anna, the characters talk so believably that they seem real -- like they could walk off the page and join me for lunch!

Sarah Wedgbrow said...

I used to give my creative writing students this assignment--go out and spy and record dialogue verbatim.
I think the important thing is to not only hear WHAT is being said, but HOW.
Robert Frost is my favorite American poet because he was such a poser...he'd write about idyllic countryscapes in New England but that was just a guise for the almost verbatim, rhythms of speech he captured in verse. He was definitely a spy. :)

Ingrid said...

Haven't read that book, but it sounds interesting. As a writer, it is important to be aware of the nuances in people's speech--the inflections in their voices, pacing of words or banter, tone and dialect. It all helps with authenticity.

Sonje and Kristan: I agree. Dialogue is so important, it can make or break a novel. I just finished THE HOST and thought it was pretty cool how S.M. essentially wrote two distinct "voices" within one character. And, like Kristan, I also read my dialogue out loud.

Sarah: I love Robert Frost!

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Stephanie, Ingrid, Sarah & Kristan — we read, write, discuss and celebrate Young Adult lit.


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The Bitter Kingdom
Wild Awake
The Raven Boys
Mind Games
Eleanor and Park
The Shattered Mountain
The Shadow Cats
Transparent
Froi of the Exiles
Days of Blood & Starlight
Every Day
Jellicoe Road
Finnikin of the Rock
Guitar Notes
The Dead-Tossed Waves
The Crown of Embers
New House 5: How A Dorm Becomes A Home
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The Fault in Our Stars
Pretties


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