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Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Okay, I'll confess. I love to eavesdrop on other people's conversations. In line at the grocery store, lunch or dinner at a restaurant, it doesn't matter to me. I freely admit I'm a card-carrying snoop. Little snippets of conversation take place all around us and sometimes you can learn the most amazing things. But what I really love is listening to HOW people talk. Not just the accents but the way they construct their sentences, the whispered inflections of speech. You can tell a whole heck of a lot about people by listening.

Which got me thinking about how my characters talk. I love to immerse the reader deep into the story, suck them right in so they forget they are reading and become truly involved with the people and places that I've tried to bring to live on the page. How they people in your story talk speaks volumes about who they are.

Let's do a little test. Pretend you're at a friend's house and overhear a conversation between Lisa and Frank, the couple you're visiting.

Lisa: "I need to go to the market. Is there anything you need?"
Frank: "Let me think about it. We need things for Saturday night when the fellows are coming to the house."
Lisa: "Oh, of course, dear. I will pick up some things for your friends."

If you read that in a story, you'd be yawn, boring, put the book down and never pick it up again (although the stilted conversation above where never get past any editor, believe me.) Instead, you want Lisa and Frank to come across as real people having a real conversation.

Lisa: "Honey, I'm going to the store. Need anything?"
Frank: "Snacks. Yeah, get snacks for the game Saturday night. Chips, dip. Oh and don't forget the beer."
Lisa: I won't forget, it's on the list. Where you wrote it—and underlined it—and put a big star next to it. Anything else?"
Frank: Um, don't forget toilet paper.

Not great examples, I know, but can you see the differences? Example #1 is very formal, stiff. No contractions, no emotion. It's blah, boring. Most real people don't talk like that. Example #2 covers the same basic conversation but hopefully these people seem more realistic. It feels more like a real conversation between two people who know each other well.

Make the people and conversations in your books feel more alive, more realistic by using contractions, accents, even foreign words when they're appropriate to the scene. Adding in dialog tags, emotions, inflections in tone and volume can all play an important part in making characters words flow and come alive.

Eavesdropping on conversations between your characters is a great way to hear the dialog, the conversational flow. Does it feel real? If you were sitting at the table next to your hero and heroine, would they sound like real people or the stilted formal Lisa and Frank from example #1?

The next time you're writing dialog, read it out loud, perk your ears up and eavesdrop. If it sounds like real people talking, having a real conversation, you'll never have the reader say, "Who talks like that?"


Maureen A. Miller said...

Very good point, Kathy. One of the greatest pieces of advice they give is to read your dialogue out loud and see if it sounds awkward.

Of course my neighbors must shudder when I shout, "Don't move or I'll take this Glock and blast both of your kneecaps to another continent!"

...actually that line is not in any of my books. :)

Kathy Ivan said...

Maureen, you make me laugh. I've had some strange looks when I'm out in public talking about story lines, but when I read my dialogue out loud, I'm usually shut away in my office with the door and window closed so nobody else will hear me. LOL

Just don't pull your Glock on me, okay? I like my kneecaps where they are. :-)

Geri said...

Kathy, great article! I'm always trying to bring my characters to life through dialog...and it's tough! You do a great job!

Geri Foster

Addison said...

Great article, Kathy!

I always find dialogue to be such a fun part of writing. And it's always fun to eavesdrop on conversations....all in the name of work! :-)


Elise Warner said...

Oh, dear. Do I need a card to eavesdrop? Love to overhear conversations and I agree, dialogue is the fun part of writing. And as for reading your dialogue out loud, Do you emote or read the lines straight?


Hilarious! Kathy. And great stuff too.

Sometimes, my men say things and I write them down because they are so good. LOL

Anne Marie Becker said...

On occasion, I've referred to myself as a "peeping Tom" or maybe it's a "peeping Tammy?" Anyway, I'm a certified people-watcher. And, yes, I do eavesdrop, too, sometimes...when I don't have to lean forward in an obvious way to do it. There, I said it. My conscience is clean. ;)

Kathy Ivan said...

Thanks, Geri! I try hard to make sure my people sound like actual people and not stiff cartoonish imposters. LOL

Thanks for stopping by.

Kathy Ivan said...

Addison, thanks for dropping by NYUS! I find it fun to listen to the people around us, and as we found out at lunch, other people are listening to us too! (Nathan Fillion is a great topic for eavesdropping apparenetly LOL).

Kathy Ivan said...

Elise, when I'm reading my dialogue out loud, I try to put the emotion into the words that I feel the character is feeling, to make sure that it's coming across properly. If needed, I can then add dialogue tags, insert and show more emotion or intensity as needs be.

I have my official eavesdropper card, it's laminated and everything. LOL Just don't tell anybody or they'll all want one too. LOL

Addison said...

That's a great point, Kathy! Nathan certainly sparks interest from those at neighboring tables!! :-)


Kathy Ivan said...

Morning, Vicki

It's amazing what one little thing somebody says and you hear can turn everything else upside down and change the entire direction of a story, or in your case can be the inspiration of entire new stories. Thanks for stopping by.

Kathy Ivan said...

Anne Marie--A "Peeping Tammy?" I love it. Never would have thought of that.

I do try to not be obvious when I'm listening. Hate to be caught red-handed or red-faced as it would be. But I do people watch all the time too. It's the best way to bring your imagination to life.

Rita said...

Great Post! I also listen in. Or I go someplace and watch the body language and try to figure out what is going on.

Nancy said...

Love the blog, Kathy! I'm an eavesdropper, too, and have heard some great stuff! You're so right that characters must sound like the real deal - and also be real to their characterizations.

Thanks for the fun!

Nancy Haddock

Janis Patterson said...

Great post, Kathy. I've always listened to other people. Glad to know I was just doing research instead of being nosy!

Anonymous said...

My problem is the snappy comeback. I don't know how people do it in real life. I'll agonise over it for days before I come up with something mildly lame. Love the article, Kathy!

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