June 29, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Josh Sippie
You’d be surprised what people say. I know I was. When I took my first memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop, the third week of class was designated to dialogue and the homework assignment was to go eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it to share in class the following week.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical. What could people actually say? But I did my due diligence, headed to Union Square, sat on a bench and stared blankly at my book, focusing my ears like antennas to pick up a conversation that I could then write into a page of dialogue for class.
There, I heard two women talking about how they were sick of pho because it was too widespread. They liked the Vietnamese soup back when it was unique and hard to find.
It may seem pointless. Who cares about the popularity of pho (other than these two women)? But it’s not about the subject matter. It’s the passion, the context, the subtext, the dialects, the manner in in which they speak. The woman who I heard the most from was incredibly impassioned about pho and being a frontierswoman of the great pho wilderness, while the other woman mostly just nodded consent and agreed with her. Though even without looking, I could tell that she probably enjoyed pho just as much as she used to.
Hence, subtext. On the surface, it’s just two women agreeing that pho has become too popular and thus the taste suffers. But when you actually break down the dialogue, it looked like this (what these women actually said, by the way):
“Can you believe that there are four pho places in Union Square now? I don’t even want to go anymore because everyone goes now. Y’know what I mean?”
“I mean, it’s ridiculous. I remember when you actually had to look for pho.”
So yes, these two women are agreeing about the prevalence of pho. But is the other woman really agreeing, or just actively listening? And what does she think about pho? Is she annoyed with her friend? Because it seems so. Maybe there’s something elsewhere. Does she suspect her friend of doing something unsavory? Are they up for the same promotion at work?
When you read dialogue, if it’s written in such a way to reflect how human beings actually talk, you don’t have to overstate. You don’t have to tell your reader how to read it. They’ll hear it.
Using context and the actual conversation, the reader knows what that “Sure” means. And maybe it also cues up how you might have done things differently. Would you have gone along with the conversation, or would you have taken a different approach? By letting your dialogue outside of its comfort zone, you are opening it up to improvement. The kind of improvement you don’t often get from talking to your television screen or cat. It’s actually a hard thing to listen to yourself talk in a natural, human voice. That’s what other people are for.
Dialogue is at its peak when it is truly human, but you’re not going to get it human through guesswork and writing it according to the Chicago Manual of Style. People don’t pattern their everyday speech based on a manual, they pattern it based on emotion and impulse. If you want your narrative nonfiction to reflect the humanity of the situation, then there better be some actually humanity in it.
Hearing how actual people talk will let your mind start piecing together your own dialogue the way you have heard actual people talk. And it all starts with having open ears. So take out your headphones on the subway and just listen. Maybe you’ll hear something that triggers your imagination, or reminds you of a conversation you had. It doesn’t have to be about pho either (thankfully).
Remember, there is nothing that you overhear someone saying that can then become “unrealistic” dialogue, or an unrealistic way to speak. It’s as real as it gets. And while it’s unlikely that you can just pluck a conversation from your walk to the grocery store and plop it in your essay, actual human voices will be floating through your head, not just words on a page. You’ll hear the inflection of voices, the subtext obtained through simple, curt responses, accents, dialects, made-up words, made-up words said in funny dialects. Every day is an opportunity to improve your dialogue writing if you just put yourself in a position to actively listen.
And what better way to try to cure writer’s block then by sitting yourself in the middle of someone else’s story and hearing the way they tell it? The world is full of voices; you just have to be willing to listen to them.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.