This bit originally appeared in the Blackbird Writers blog. The birds are a group of fiction fashioners whose books run the gamut from sweet to thrilling. Check ’em out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dialog lately. The project I’m working on is very dialog heavy, and as I write, I’m saying the lines in my head with, what I imagine are, the accents and inflections the characters would use. Sometimes while writing, I’ll go back a few pages and read the dialog aloud. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that readers will hear the dialog the way I do, but it helps me hear when something’s off. My wife is used to hearing me read aloud, but our dog, Hendrix, still looks up to see if a treat or toy is involved. When none is forthcoming, he stalks off in disgust.
Vocalizing dialog always makes me think of audiobooks. Over the past three years, the audiobook market has exploded. Lots of folks are too busy to read, and listening to books and podcasts in the car or at the gym is a great way to multitask. You just have to be careful not to drive into a building or drop a weight on your foot. But with an audiobook, the text is only part of the experience. Having the right narrator is almost as important. A flat read (like an AI-generated voice) can kill a story, and an over-the-top read will make even the most serious passages sound silly and cartoonish. Two of my favorite narrators for detective/crime fiction are Peter Francis James and Scott Brick. Both actors are able to portray a story’s characters with subtle depth. My short story collection is the only one of my books currently available as an audiobook. I can’t recommend it. I did half of the narration myself, and believe me, I ain’t a good narrator.
Another thing that can kill a story is the misuse, or overuse, of colloquialisms. This is particularly evident when authors who are unfamiliar with a culture saturate dialog with phrases they think will sound authentic. Rather than verisimilitude, the result is a story that sounds phony. This is particularly evident when the words are being read aloud, y’all.
Back when I was teaching writing classes at Malcolm X College, I would occasionally assign an eavesdropping exercise. We’d all take our pads and pens to the cafeteria and sit near a table of students who were engaged in lunchtime conversations. I would explain the fine art of being sneaky beforehand, so we were only caught eavesdropping a couple of times. What we came away with was always fascinating. And frightening. I learned some new swear words, which surprised me because I’m not exactly an amateur in the field.
The first thing you realize when trying to translate eavesdropped dialog into fictional dialog is that there’s a lot of extraneous verbiage to cut—er, um, etc., along with the boring bits, like greetings, that precede an actual exchange of ideas and information. One of my favorite overheard conversations went something like this—
Man 1: “I thought it would be a fun trip, but no. Nuh uh. Not.”
Man 2: “What happened?”
Man 1: “A lot of nothing. I thought it would be romantic to walk together on the beach. You know, holding hands and stuff.”
Man 2: “So?”
Man 1: “She’s afraid of birds. I had to stay ten feet ahead of her, shooing the birds away as we walked.”
Man 2: Shakes head.
Some day I’ll use this in a story. It’s gold, Jerry. Gold!
If you’re ever looking for dialog to attribute to a character who’s despicable, morally bankrupt, and cruel, look no further than social media. Not the posts. Scroll down to the comments. Intellectually small people with low self-esteem and poor reasoning skills populate the comments section, and they delight in the opportunity to be cruel from the safety of their keyboards. These “discussions” are a treasure trove for writers. Don’t linger there too long though, or you may come to the opinion that we should embrace global climate change as the earth’s way to cleanse itself of the pestilence of humanity. My wife can usually tell when I’ve spent too much time down the rabbit hole. Then she’ll repeat the lines of dialog I’ve come to cherish: “Put your phone down and get the dog’s leash and a tennis ball. We’re going to the park.”