Rebecca Makkai is one of my favorite lecturers. Her seminars are always funny, insightful, and practical. Yesterday’s lecture was on dialogue. Dialogue isn’t something I struggle with, but I suspected it would be worth the trip up to Winnetka. I was right.
At the beginning of the lecture, she covered real life conversations versus those in written works (fiction, non-fiction, memoir). A lot of it I already knew, but it was a good reminder. If novelists wrote dialogue like real people talk, it would be awful…full of repetition, boring details, starts and stops, filler words, and the list goes on. On the positive side, it might sound more authentic than invented, formal, stilted dialogue.
The section I found most useful to my own writing was on voice. Every character, like every person, has their own, unique way of speaking. Included is a list of some of the factors that make a person’s speech unique: lexicon (word choice), grammar, completeness of sentences, sentence length, use of euphemisms, repetitiveness, punctuation (think William Shatner or Christopher Walken), ornamentation of speech, ticks (like how some people, uh, like, sometimes have a word or two they use a lot, like), accents (Rebecca warned caution with this one, as it can become distracting), politeness, hesitation/directness, use and frequency of cuss words, clarity level, favorite words, age (related to lexicon).
For myself, I just write. It pours out of me, dialogue included. The list above gave me a lot to think about when I go back in revision. Frankly, I’m a bit of a lazy writer, but I hope I can make myself take a look at my dialogue and make some conscious adjustments.
A fun exercise we did was to write a series of one-liners of dialogue with the intention of talking to a private eye’s secretary to get in to see the boss, Mr. Chambers. Several OCWW members read one of their one-liners and the diversity was humorous and enlightening.
She also spent a good amount of time on subtext–the meaning behind the dialogue. Communication extends far beyond what is actually said. Rebecca reminded us to keep in mind character’s wants and desires, fears and concerns–every character, even the little ones. Everybody wants something, even in fiction (good fiction).
The last takeaway, and another of my favorites was the idea of incorporating facial expressions and gestures (in the right amount). There is a tendency to stick to cliches (frowning, drawn eyebrows, wide eyes, pursed lips–you get the idea). Rebecca urged us to look beyond those in revision. She suggested putting something in the character’s hand and seeing what they might do with it. Those actions can reveal a lot about a character’s inner life without having to spell it out. Great idea.
One of the hallmark outcomes of a great lecture is the motivation to dive into writing and put the learned principles into action. Rebecca Makkai delivered once again!