WriteBrain Report: How to Make Dialogue Talk to Your Audience by Laura Hayden
Reporter: Cathy Dilts
Papers fluttered dramatically to the floor. Filing cards passed hand-to-hand, and were shuffled and re-shuffled. A writing exercise sparked dialogue, character, and plot ideas. It was worth braving the cold temperatures to hear Laura Hayden speak on “How to Make Dialogue ‘Talk’ to Your Audience.” The January 18 Write Brain was a combination pep talk, workshop, and question and answer session.
An overflow crowd listened intently as Laura opened with her Pikes Peak Writers Conference testimonial. She attended the first PPWC, before it achieved renown as one of the 10 best writing conferences in the nation. A winner of one of the first Paul Gillette Awards, Laura pitched her story and acquired an agent at the conference. Now a multi-published author, Laura encouraged the Write Brain audience to attend this year’s PPWC. One would do well to take her advice.
Next, Laura broke fiction dialogue into two categories: Academic Dialogue and Practical Application Dialogue. She said that Academic Dialogue is the style you learn in English literature class. It does not contain contractions and uses completed sentences. Practical Application Dialogue, on the other hand, more closely mimics natural speech.
To illustrate her point, Laura held up lines of dialogue printed on sheets in font large enough to read from the back of the crowded room. She tossed the dialogue sheets onto the floor as she went, littering the front of the room.
“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
This first line began a dry exchange between two faceless people about whether one had slept well, and what was on the breakfast menu. Little was revealed about character.
In the next iteration, Laura added contractions to make the dialogue seem more natural. The third time around, she made the first speaker an older woman.
“Good morning, dear. Slept well, I trust?”
For the fourth bit of dialogue, Laura made the second speaker a young man who spoke in a casual manner. She gave the dialogue sheets to audience members, who “acted” out the scene.
Next, Laura added narrative between the lines of dialogue, to put the story in the woman’s point of view. Finally, she changed it to the young man’s point of view.
The exercise illustrated the importance of choosing your words carefully to create depth. We watched the scene magically morph from a dull exchange of words to an unfolding of character and plot. Laura was ankle deep in paper by the end of this exercise, and the audience was delighted.
The next exercise required input from the audience. Laura instructed us to write a character description on an orange index card, and a snippet of dialogue on a white card. She then collected and shuffled the cards. The goal was to make the odd combinations work, as characters created by one audience member spoke the dialogue created by another.
My favorite: Card 1: A new pastor. Card 2: Ice skating. An audience member created a scenario where the pastor explains that he can’t walk on water, so he’ll have to settle for skating on the frozen variety.
Another draw looked like this: Card 1: A grizzled old cowboy. Card 2: The dialogue sounded like a line from a home shopping TV channel. Is the cowboy selling something? Is he being sarcastic?
The creativity of the audience was amazing. People used the two simple cards to invent scenes that spanned genre and tone, from humorous to romantic to sinister.
Laura discussed dialogue nuts and bolts next, explaining that “said” is an invisible word to your reader. She warned us not to use the thesaurus to find alternatives for “said,” like chortled, wheezed, and hissed. She also cautioned against using dialogue tags that include an adverb, such as,“She said sadly.” Kill the –ly words. (I guess that means “he rasped angrily” and “she lazily lisped” are out.)
Does your dialogue start conflict, or complicate existing conflict? Is it essential to the scene? Does it move the plot forward? Laura gave us dozens of questions to ask about our story dialogue. Then she gave us keys to effective dialogue. Remember that dialogue may imitate speech in real life, but that real life speech is “full of useless chatter and aimless rambling.”
When in doubt, have someone else read your dialogue aloud. Does their reading convey the meaning you intended?
Laura’s presentation on dialogue was lively, interactive, and packed with information. It was truly a you-had-to-be-there experience. If you missed this Write Brain, don’t despair. There is a new event every month. Check the “events” section on the home page of pikespeakwriters.com, and click on “Write Brains.”