How do people talk to each other? How do we write convincing, real-sounding conversations that convey relationships and character?
I love Carrie’s exercise because it is a visual and aural exercise for oral discourse. Rather than writing down a conversation word for word, Carrie encourages us to graph as we listen, then discern the patterns, and ask what those patterns mean for the relationships between the people in conversation. Very cool.
The exercise below is a small excerpt from Carrie’s new writing workbook: A Self-guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on How to Write Stories From Start to Finish.
If you’d like to complete the remainder of the exercise below and make progress in your writing journey (at your own pace!), then grab yourself a copy of the workbook and enjoy the ride.
*As we stay home for safety during COVID-19, you can adapt this exercise by listening to conversations happening online or in radio and podcast form. You might also listen to dialogue from different styles of movies and TV shows. If you live with family members (as I do), then you’ll have lots of conversations to graph right in your own home!
Excerpt from LESSON SIXTEEN of A Self-guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on How to Write Stories From Start to Finish
HOW DIALOGUE CAN HELP YOU TELL YOUR STORY
Dialogue is one of the great tools of writing fiction. So, let’s learn something about how it works and why understanding how people talk to each other can help us develop the characters as well as the plot.
Here’s your first lesson in writing dialogue. Words matter, but how the conversation is constructed matters more. A well-constructed dialogue can define relationships between characters and explain the underlying story. In short, great dialogue shows more than it tells.
Here’s an exercise that can help you sort out this concept.
Go to a coffee shop or some other busy place where people are talking. Listen to how people are talking to each other rather than what they are saying. Pay attention to the rhythm of the conversation.
As you listen, draw lines. Set it up like a dialogue. When the first person speaks, write A, then start making a line. Try to mimic the speed of each person talking as you move your pencil across the page. The faster someone talks, the faster you draw your line.
When the next person speaks, go down a space and write B then start a second line. Go back and forth between the two speakers. Your page should look something like this:
Use a question mark (?) to indicate someone has asked a question and an exclamation point (!) when someone has shouted or raised his or her voice or gave an emphatic response.
Do this for a whole page. Look at the lines; are some longer, others shorter? Who has most of the short lines? Who has most of the longer lines? Is there a pattern?
What can you know about this interaction just from the length of the lines? Is one person dominating the conversation? Who initiated the conversation? Did someone dodge a question and change the direction of the dialogue? Do you notice any pauses in the conversation? What might those pauses indicate? Are the two people taking polite turns talking? Are they talking quietly to each other? Is one person raising their voice? Are they laughing? Are the sentences they are using long or short?
What does all this mean?
Carrie Knowles has published dozens of short stories and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and four novels: Lillian’s Garden (Roundfire Books, 2013), Ashoan’s Rug (Roundfire Books, 2013), A Garden Wall in Provence (Owl Canyon Press, 2017), The Inevitable Past (Owl Canyon Press, 2020), a collection of short fiction, Black Tie Optional: 17 Stories (Owl Canyon Press, 2019) and a writing workbook, A Self-Guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on Learning How to Write Stories from Start-to-Finish (Owl Canyon Press, 2020). Her non-fiction memoir about her family’s struggles with their mother’s Alzheimer’s, The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s, initially published by Three Rivers Press, was recently revised, updated and reissued through Amazon.
Carrie writes a regular column for Psychology Today: “Shifting Forward: A Wanderer’s Musings”.
Carrie was named the Piedmont Laureate for Short Fiction in 2014. Her short stories have won more than 25 awards, including the Village Advocate Fiction Contest, the Blumenthal Writers & Readers Series, the North Carolina Writer’s Network Fiction Syndication and Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Competition. She has been named a finalist in Glimmer Train competitions six times and was also a finalist in the Doris Betts Fiction Contest and received an honorable mention in the National Literary Awards.
Near the end of March, I reached out to a handful of experts to request a quick tip or exercise for people who are writing at home.
It’s taken me awhile to circle back around to sharing what I received, but I’m happy to say that a good writing tip rarely goes out of style.