Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Discussion of Dialogue and Style
August 14, 1998
I personally think that one of your greatest strengths as a writer is dialogue. I would imagine it has something to do with your time spent writing plays, as those consist almost entirely of dialogue. But I also notice that many of your characters sound like you and your wife (at least as you are in public forums like Life, the Universe and Everything at BYU). How do you go about making your characters sound real when they talk? Do you try to use your own conversations as a model? How would you recommend a new writer learn about writing dialogue?
-- Submitted by Traci R. Klein
The Playwriting Connection
Playwriting is indeed a good practice for a writer of fiction, because you don't
really understand your own scenes until actors perform them and you watch the audiences watch
them. Without changing forms, however, you can get some of that effect simply by reading your
own dialogue aloud -- or, better yet, making somebody else read your dialogue aloud and hearing
how it sounds. When the reader stumbles over your dialogue or reads it incorrectly -- wrong
emphasis, wrong intonation -- it's usually not bad reading, it's bad dialogue. Playwrights learn
to "actor-proof" their dialogue (though in fact actors can always find hopelessly wrong readings
of dialogue no matter how carefully and clearly the playwright sets it down); a fiction writer can
also learn to "reader-proof" his dialogue, to some degree, at least.
Of course, it helps too if you actually pay attention to other people when they talk. Not that you
write down their dialogue -- you're a writer, not a reporter. But you get a sense of the music, the
word choice, the attitude. That becomes part of your tool chest.
As I said before, though, there's no escaping from your own style. Of course when I have a
character speak wittily, he will be witty in precisely the way that I'm witty when I'm trying to be
witty. I mean, the person thinking of the dialogue is always going to be me, right? So when I
come up with dialogue, I'm "putting on" that character's attitude and improvising as that
character -- but all the language is going to have to be my own, because mine is the mind it
comes out of. You can make yourself insane trying to write something that doesn't sound like
you, because you can't write anything that doesn't sound like you, unless you copy somebody
else, and what's the point of that? So you just settle down, create characters, and have them say
things the way you would say them if you were they. That's the only character differentiation
that's really possible, but if you do it well enough, it's enough.