When I wrote Hung Up (Simon Pulse, 2014), I knew before I typed the first word that the entire book would be written in phone conversations.
No traditional scenes. No chapters.
No physical descriptions, besides what I could work naturally into dialogue.
It was my tenth novel–the first I’d written in that format–and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was also struggling through a difficult pregnancy at the time. I guess that made the process of book-making and revising feel extra arduous. I ate so many saltines . . .
Since the book has come out, because of its format, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about writing dialogue.
Here are the four most useful things anyone ever told me about writing dialogue.
1. It’s not like real speech.
When I first started writing fiction for teens, I was encouraged by fellow writers to eavesdrop as much as I could on young people’s conversations. I realize now this was a terrible idea.
Yes, real speech is interesting, but overheard conversations are rarely going to arrive in any condition to insert into your novel. Plus, the cadence is all wrong. If you really listen, most conversations are scattered and loose and filled with pauses and “ums” and have no structure.
Dialogue is carefully composed. Every time I type a quotation mark I think, “Every word must be worth it.”
Here’s a quick anecdote. A few years ago, I was a volunteer gardener on Alcatraz. Because I spent most of my time low to the ground and beside the walking paths, I overhead all sorts of conversations. Did people talk about crazy personal things involving their medication, sex lives, and in-laws? Yeah, they did. But for the hours and hours of conversations I overheard on that island, I maybe got two small quotes worth using. Which isn’t the best return on time.
So sponging off teen conversations might help you stay current with teen slang, but I don’t think it’s helpful in crafting meaningful dialogue.
|The Rose Garden on Alcatraz|
2. Compression is often a great solution.
There are only three ways to revise: you add words, rearrange words, or subtract words.
When it comes to revising dialogue, I think you should aim for economy. I’m constantly looking for words to purge. (I started out as a poet; so I spent most of the 90s developing word-purging skills.)
If you want better dialogue, try having less of it.
3. Long interrupted sections of one person talking can feel inauthentic.
Dialogue is meant to go back and forth. If one person refuses to pass the ball, you risk creating a section that can feel strained, or boring, or insincere.
In Hung Up my characters do talk for extended moments, but I tried to set these up so they would read as confessions, which I think readers tend to like or at least extend more patience to.
|This baby goat is Laverne.|
4. Empathetic people write the best dialogue.
This is perhaps the best insight I’ve come across and I completely believe it. Because if you can accurately imagine how another person feels, you stand the best chance of accurately capturing what that person wants to say.
When generating or revising dialogue, I try to deeply imagine the characters as much as I can—where they are physically, geographically, emotionally.
If I understand how my characters feel, it’s easier to speak for them.
|This baby human is Max.|
Enter to win one of two copies of Hung Up by Kristen Tracy (Simon Pulse,
2014) or a copy of Lost It or a copy of Crimes of the Sarahs (all Simon Pulse). Eligibility: U.S. From the promotional copy of
Can you fall in love with a voice? This witty romance, told entirely through phone calls, chronicles the tale of a wrong number gone right.
It all started with a wrong number.
The voicemails Lucy left on James’s phone were meant for someone else–someone who used to have James’s digits. But then when James finally answers and the two start to talk, a unique bond forms between the two teens.
Gradually, Lucy and James begin to understand each other on a deeper level than anyone else in their lives. But when James wants to meet in person, Lucy is strangely resistant. And when her secret is revealed, he’ll understand why…