December 11, 2012

no. 6: listen up to write better dialogue

Blogger's Note: Today marks the almost halfway mark of the 12 Days of Writing. Cynthia Hill shared two of her books with me this year (read my reviews here and here), and through conversations discovered a mutual love of Laura Ingalls Wilder and NKOTB. It's great to have her on the blog, today. Be sure to leave her a comment for a chance to win this week's prize package of books.

No. 6: Listen Up to Write Better Dialogue
Do You Hear What I Hear?

By Cynthia Hill
Author of Idol Hands and What Lies Behind

I wrote my first “play” when I was in Grade 3. I believe it was about “The Mystery of the Talking Purse” (spoiler alert: it was a parrot). I even studied playwriting in university. Ever since, even though I mainly focus on novels and short stories, I’ve prided myself on my ability to write convincing dialogue. When your characters’ conversations don’t sound realistic, it can be very jarring to the reader. I can read a story in which the author describes the setting and characters perfectly, but if the dialogue doesn’t ring true, I’ll struggle to get through it, or even put it down entirely.

So if you’re not the type of author for whom dialogue comes naturally, what do you do?


This Christmas, when you’re gathered around the tree, or the turkey, or unwrapping that mountain of presents with your family, really try and listen to not only what your family is saying, but how they are saying it. Listen to the rhythm of how they talk. Listen to the pauses, the slang they use, the way they use sentence fragments. No one speaks in full, grammatically perfect sentences all the time. We lose focus mid-sentence. Sometimes we even… oh, look! Dancing monkeys wearing Santa hats!!! Still not sure about writing dialogue? Try some of these exercises.

1. Try and write a scene with nothing but dialogue. How can you create a setting with nothing other than speech? Read it back to yourself: can you picture exactly who the characters are, simply from the way that they talk?

2. Try writing a character sketch as a long monologue. How can you get the information needed into the speech without it seeming unnatural?

3. After a phone conversation with a friend or family member, sit down and try and write out the conversation as best you can remember it.

4. As always: read, read, read! What authors do you think are the best at writing convincing dialogue? Who could use some better listening skills? Why? To all of the readers and writers out there, I wish you a joyful holiday season! Enjoy your family and friends, and be sure to listen – you never know where your next story idea will come from!

About the Author
The author of Idol Hands and What Lies Behind, Cynthia Hill is also a mom of four insanely wonderful kids, and is looking forward to spending some "quiet" time with her family over the holidays (ha!).

For More Information About Cynthia
Twitter: @CHillBooks

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  1. Loved your tips for writing dialogue. I started writing plays a few years ago for two reasons: learn a new genre's structures (love to stretch myself) and to improve dialogue writing in my novels. I feel good about what I've learned on both fronts. Even so, this post was quite instructive. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great post! I was totally afraid of dialogue in college (did a degree in creative writing) and I stuck to pretentious stories with little to no dialogue, but actually my crazy actress roommate suggested writing scenes with only dialogue and after a few jerky starts it really started to flow. :-) I can see how any of your fabulous tips would help a lot!

  3. Dialogue is one of those things that, for me, when it's written well I don't notice it. But if it's written poorly? Really hard to get through. Interesting ideas here!