“I live in Panorama,” Christiana told me, as we made the short trip from the airport to her home. “Pano meaning over, rama meaning view. It is an over-view, a panorama. You see? It makes sense. Every word, it comes from the Greek. You give me any example in English, I tell you how it is from the Greek.”
Upon my initial dissection of a word or a subject, I often recall with fondness these words from my first trip to Greece. Spoken to me by my wonderful friend and host, Christiana, I was delighted with her typically Greek approach to life.
So let us begin with the subject of “dialogue” by discovering its Greek origins. “Dialogos”; to converse, was compounded from “dia”, meaning through or across, (think “diagonal”), and “legein”, to speak, or “logos”, the meaning. The art of conversation, then, involves a meaningful communication spoken across or through from self to another.
Of course, that is a very long-winded way to describe the ordinary everyday act of talking with another. But think about it; you are, as my friend Christiana would affirm, attempting to do exactly as in the Greek origin. You want to “dia” “logos”; Get across your meaning.
Now, you need to remember, that you the author are not personally dialoguing. To be true to your characters, their voices, personalities and emotions, escape from yourself; escape from your own thoughts, feelings, or mannerisms. Think of it as acting. Become your character. Say what they would say. Then jump straight into the skin of the person they are talking with, to respond as they might respond. Your dialogue will then serve you to develop your character with integrity.
As lovely as it is for the reader to listen in on conversations, eavesdropping can become a tiresome activity if there seems little purpose to it, or if there is an information overload. If you tell a child to study for a test, you’ll likely hear groans and find yourself with an unwilling student on your hands. On the other hand, if you take that same child for a walk in the park and disguise the study with fun questions, (“I bet you don’t know what that bird is called!” “If you can name five of the flowers over there, I’ll buy you an ice-cream!”), the kid has no idea that they are “learning”; it’s an organic and fun accumulation that occurs naturally through the walk in the park.
Try and use the same principle when you communicate information. Look at this example:
“The spider won’t hurt you!”
“But Todd,” Mary said, “you don’t understand. I have a terrible fear of spiders ever since I accidentally ate one as a child, when it fell into my soup.”
A little heavy to digest. How about:
“The spider won’t hurt you!”
“But Todd,” Mary said, “you don’t understand. I hate spiders!”
“But why? They’re tiny!” Todd replied.
“I accidentally ate one as a child.” Mary shuddered as she remembered the creepy crawly in her soup.
Not much has changed, and we learn the same information. But rather than being bogged down in factual sentences, we enjoy a playful exchange between two friends.
If you are looking to improve your dialogue, why not try the following exercises and tips?
Listen in to strangers at coffee shops and take notes (…try not to make it too obvious! I take ZERO responsibility for any restraining orders you might receive as a result!).
→ Record yourself
Record your own conversations. You can use the microphone app on your phone, if you have the technology, or buy an inexpensive dictaphone from ebay or the likes. Transcribe your conversations and notice the patterns.
→ Remove the boring parts
Listening in to conversations and taking notes is good practise, but be careful not to use everything that you’d find in normal dialogue. Remove everything from your written dialogue expect the essential components. No one wants to hear the back and forth of the initial meeting unless it communicates something important. As Alfred Hitchcock put it, a good story is “life with the dull parts taken out.” For example:
“Hey,” Amber said as she walked up to Lucy. “How are you?”
“Hi,” Lucy replied. “I’m Good thanks, how are you doing?”
“You look tired,” Lucy said.
“Yeah, I am a bit tired,” Amber replied.
“How come?” Lucy asked.
“My baby brother kept me awake all night.”
“That’s annoying,” said Lucy.
The same conversation could happen, minus the boring everyday details. Look at this revision:
Amber yawned as she walked up to Lucy.
“You look exhausted” Lucy said.
“My baby brother kept me awake all night.” Amber replied.
You’ll notice the pace is faster, and it is more engaging, but we haven’t lost the point of the conversation.
→ “Said” is underrated
When I was younger, I used to think that “said” was boring and used too often. I’d mix it up with various words appropriate to the occasion, such as, she whispered, he growled, they screamed. The thing is, said is an invisible word. Readers will skip past it easily as they focus on the story. But try to replace it every time, and you’ll end up with awkward, hard to read dialogue. Stick to the basics, like said, replied, asked, and you won’t go wrong. Only use a variation if you think it is absolutely essential, and do so as the exception to the rule.