Thursday, May 12, 2011

Chatty Characters

I know how much you love to add exciting dialogue to your stories. It's fun to write about your characters chatting away, isn't it? Here are some quick tips to help you get better at writing dialogue.

Read! The best dialogue should come naturally, but force yourself to study it as you read.

Start a dialogue diary. Yep, that's right, the D word--diary. Practice writing dialogue in it. Each entry doesn't have to go along with the one before it. You're not writing a story; you're only writing down what someone is saying.

Eavesdrop. Carry a pen or pencil and paper everywhere. (I need to work on this!) The best dialogue may hit you at an unexpected time, like in the dentist's office, on the playground, or while you're waiting in line after recess time.

And since we're on the subject of eavesdropping, I thought you'd enjoy this article I wrote. It was published online in 2005, and is still one of my favorites. In it you'll find a method for saving dialog and story ideas.

Gathering Seeds

By Nancy Viau


I plop on a swing and watch my kids take off for their favorite piece of playground equipment. Minutes later, a little girl zooms by and cries, “My eyes have ladybugs crawling on them!”

I can’t help but giggle at her choice of words. They’re perfect! Every parent within earshot knows this kid’s allergies are acting up and her red, itchy eyes are driving her crazy. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I simply must record her outburst for use in a future story or poem. I grab my purse and search for a pen and paper. Although I can probably make a decent snack out of what’s lurking in its folds, my purse lacks anything that resembles a writing instrument let alone a piece of paper. And I call myself a writer.

I jog to the car and find a partially melted green crayon. Bingo! Lucky for me, glued to it is an old map. I tear off a piece of California and scribble the girl’s words near San Francisco.

I’ve learned it’s best to make note of terrific comments (and any worthwhile thoughts) the moment I come in contact with them for if I rely on my aging memory, this good “stuff” gets lost forever. The outspoken little girl, a stranger on a playground, has clicked my writer’s brain into overdrive. I settle on a park bench and jot down a few observations and character traits on Napa Valley. Every detail, from the way she uses her hands to talk to the way she stomps her grubby pink sneakers in the dirt, gets recorded in my own peculiar style of shorthand.

When I return home, I’ll add my map notes to my file. I’ll tuck them in among tidbits penned on restaurant napkins, homework assignments, junk mail, post-it notes, and yes, even ordinary lined paper. My file bursts at its seams. The last time I peeked, I discovered bilingual dialog, complaints by skateboarders, thoughts on seashells and shaggy dogs, my daughter’s opinion about morning breath (it apparently smells like low tide), and a blip about the pros and cons of a peanut butter, raisin, and mayonnaise sandwich. There were also nine newspaper articles, seven photographs, three class work papers (complete with high school slang and doodles), and one gum wrapper. (Not sure why I put that sticky thing in there.)

My overstuffed file is labeled SEEDS. Some “seeds” have matured into published children’s pieces. Others have sprouted as columns for newspapers, magazines, and E-zines. One is going through a lengthy cultivation process. When it’s fully developed, I hope it’ll be a novel. Not all “seeds” will find their way into print. Some may stay tucked inside the file for years waiting to break into bloom in a suitable genre.

Playground time is ending. I smile at a mother who has rocked her baby to sleep. Minutes later, a toddler skips over hooting and howling like a jungle animal. The mother reprimands him for waking his sister. He puts fingers to his lips and whispers, “I’m only pretending to be quiet.”

What a great line! Where’s my crayon? Is that smashed blob of green wax next to my shoe what’s left of my only writing instrument? Darn! I beg the man two sliding boards over for his felt pen. There’s not an inch of space left on my map, so I pick up a slightly used gum wrapper and write the toddler’s phrase on the non-slippery side.

And walking to the car, I make a mental note to check that other wrapper—the gummy one in my SEEDS file. It probably has a dynamite story starter on the flip side.

Start Your Own Seeds File

1. Label a folder with the word SEEDS. Store it on the main floor of your home. (“Seeds” will scatter to the wind, disappear in pockets, or be thrown in the trash if not filed instantly.)

2. Keep a notebook handy. (Believe me, gum wrappers are not that great.) Carry a decent pen. (Things written in crayon are often mistaken for kids’ artwork.)

3. Observe and record interesting details. Write them down immediately. (Wait until later and the only thoughts left in your head will be: I had some great ideas. What were they?)

4. If you have time, expand on a “seed” while the feeling is fresh. Create a conversation from bits of dialogue, make an outline, begin a story, or write several lines of poetry.

5. If you cannot expand, file the “seed” anyway. Let it germinate.

6. Soon you’ll have an entire collection of interesting tidbits. Pick one, water it with your creativity, and watch it grow.

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