I have a secret weapon when it comes to developing authentic, convincingly real dialogue in my novels: my ear.
That’s not to say that I am an eavesdropper. I do not lurk around others at cocktail parties (Cocktail parties? Do those even exist anymore in our online-saturated world?), nor do I silently sidle up to people talking on their cell phones. The fact is, when I am involved in a conversation, I try to listen very consciously and pay attention to how ideas are expressed, how a dialogue moves from beginning to end, and what it actually sounds like.
And when I hear a particularly memorable line, I steal it.
My characters say the same things that living, breathing, people actually say.
I know this is one of the keys to my success in creating characters because I always have readers enthuse to me about how “real” my characters are.
“I swear I know your characters,” a reader tells me. “They talk just like my friends do. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you’d been secretly recording our conversations!”
Confession: I actually considered carrying around a small recorder early in my writing career to capture great lines of conversation, but decided that was too creepy. Instead, I developed the habit of repeating a line in my head until I had it memorized to copy down later. Almost miraculously, the rest of the conversation comes back to me for use in scene development, and that’s when I apply artistic license and my own imagination to craft it into my plot.
Until recently, I thought that was the way every writer developed dialogue: relying on your own ear. But then my daughter shared with me an experience she’d just had with readers of her fan fiction.
“I had so many readers comment on how much they loved this one line from a character,” she happily told me, “and it was verbatim what a friend said to me when he tasted some brownies I made. Seriously, all the best lines come straight from someone’s mouth! Forget struggling to come up with zingers – all you have to do is listen to the people around you.”
That simply confirms what I tell my audiences when I speak about my writing. I can’t take credit for some of the best dialogue in my books, because I didn’t make it up. I just recorded what I heard someone else say. In so many cases, the real world provides much better, more authentic material than I could ever dream up. Not only that, but listening carefully to conversation helps you develop pacing and timing that mimics real people, which is a huge benefit when you’re working with fictional characters.
The next time you’re stumped for dialogue, give your keyboard a rest, and instead, go talk to someone and put your ear to work. It really is surprising what people might say, and what you can do with it.