Writing dialogue is hard.
I’m agonizing over a phrase from a conversation I had only days ago. I’ve already decided the exact words aren’t important, it’s just the effect that I’m after. A rough approximation of a phrase from a conversation that I actually had—I’m not even making it up—less than a week ago, and I’m still struggling. It’s already as undemanding as writing exercises get.
Frustrated, I put my pen down and text Niki. Why is writing dialogue so impossible?!
The reply is almost immediate. Because talking to people sucks!
I laugh out loud. We’re both introverts, and we understand.
It’s been a couple days since. I eventually did figure out how to word that elusive phrase. The exercise was some degree of successful after all.
I slip my laptop out of its neoprene case, and a piece of paper falls to the floor. When I unfold it I find a page of the manuscript I was writing for my Advanced Creative Writing class three and a half years ago. It must have been from one of the nights the class peer-edited it—if you have not experienced this, let me tell you, it is no minor torture—because it’s typed in size 7 font so that my whole selection will fit on a single page. A quippy section of dialogue has brackets drawn around it, accompanied by my handwriting circa junior year of college: “Realness, not all banter / Still feels forced / Wordiness / Cliches and idioms—too bitter? / Spacing, timing, age—is speech mature enough?”
It takes some pride-swallowing, but I reread the dialogue I had written and I can hear it now, the stiffness. The unlikeliness of the conversation. The youthfulness of the words I was asking my supposedly adult characters to say. I fight the urge to cringe, and remember instead the context in which I wrote those words: the loneliness of that winter, my first semester in an off-campus apartment with roommates I hardly knew and rarely saw; the distance I felt from my friends and the social climate that had shifted so dramatically during the previous semester, when I was abroad; the difficulty of trying to identify my place in an environment that felt more foreign than the far-away country I had just returned from.
I could not write truthful, complex, believable dialogue, because I was not participating in it myself.
One of my favorite teachers in high school once remarked on her daughter’s propensity to write in a style similar to whatever she was currently reading. “I could tell whether she was reading comic books or Tolstoy based on the language she used when she wrote.” This is true of our real-life conversations as well, I’ve come to realize. The more deeply we engage when we speak, the more deeply our characters can engage when we write.
This is both great and terrifying for myself as an introvert, because I will always opt for intellectually-stimulating conversation over small talk, but sometimes the act of conversing feels like a burden given that I see little merit to it unless it is multifaceted and thought-provoking. The good news is that dialogue, both in real life and on the page, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Each informs the other, but reading (novels, poetry, articles, blog posts) and watching (movies, shows, YouTube, the news) factor into this exchange as well. The intake of information enables one’s contribution to conversation, and conversation generates new interest in topics not yet explored.
“Write what you know,” they say, so how can you expect to write meaningful dialogue unless you know what it’s like to partake in it? It turns out that seemingly trivial “write down an overheard conversation” assignment your English teacher gave you all those years ago may be one of the most practical exercises in dialogue-writing. The more familiar we are with the way people speak and the language they use, and the more comfortable we become with translating speech into text, the more natural our characters will sound when we inevitably run out of ways to avoid written conversation in our writing.
So write down that unusual turn of phrase you can’t stop mulling over, and that gem of a pun you overheard on the subway. Write down what you remember of the discussion you had with a friend, and the argument you had with your sibling. You never know when your characters may find themselves in a relatable situation—or when you might decide to start recording the trajectory of your own life. Because the more you engage with your surroundings, the more your readers can engage with your story.