Overheard Voices

5 minute read
Author: Jo

Dialogue! One writer’s bane, another’s best friend. Some characters are naturally chatty while others find it hard to string a sentence together. And do they always say what they actually mean? No they flipping well do not. Or, at least, they shouldn’t. To help you nail the talky-talk parts of your writing, here’s a sneak peek from our Writing Short Fiction course:

Dialogue is a shifty little bastard. Realistic fictional dialogue shouldn’t actually sound too much like real life conversation (which is full of ums and ers and tangents and pointless small talk) but it also shouldn’t be a heavy-handed vessel to info-dump exposition onto the reader (“Oh hello Geoff, my old friend who helped me secretly get rid of that dead body ten years ago, how are things? And why do you look so anxious? I hope it’s not anything to do with that new supermarket that’s about to be built on the site of the shallow grave.”).

Good dialogue reveals something about the character speaking it – whether they’re trying to impress someone, persuade someone, intimidate someone, flirt with someone or lie to someone.

Good dialogue reveals emotions, intensions, and signposts a character’s reliability.

Good dialogue reveals clues about the story as a whole, or adds depth to a subplot, or creates new problems and conflicts, or helps to weave together the different strands of the narrative.

Sometimes good dialogue isn’t even about the words the characters are saying. It’s all about the subtext – backed up by body language and gestures and expressions and other actions going on in the scene.

It’s complicated, y’all.

To see what we’re on about, take a mo to watch this scene from Little Miss Sunshine, which demonstrates an effortless balance of all these things.

But first, a little context. [MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT] In this scene, the Hoover family are reaching breaking point during the final leg of a road trip. Their van keeps breaking down and won’t stop randomly honking. They’re late. They’re dealing with all sorts of personal issues (a suicide attempt, drug addiction, bankruptcy, divorce, bereavement). The teenage son, Dwayne, inspired by Neitzsche, has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of becoming a jet pilot. Everyone has had enough of everyone’s shit except Dwayne’s little sister Olive, who is passing the time by testing her brother with puzzles…

Are you crying? ‘Cause I’m crying. That, my friends, is a damn good script. Here are a bunch of characters at absolute bursting point. The dialogue is seemingly innocuous – the parents are arguing about the traffic and their lateness; the kids’ uncle is irritable and uninterested; Olive is innocently relentless in her testing of her brother; and Dwayne doesn’t speak at all – writing notes to communicate instead. All these separate interactions and the incessant noise of the horn layer up the tension and conflict, while a very important bombshell is dropped casually into conversation.

“Dwayne, I think you might be colourblind.”

This single line of character information may not seem like much, but it sets of a catalyst of discovery that is world-changing and heartbreaking.

If he’s colourblind, he can’t be a pilot. His 9 month vow of silence has been for nothing. His life’s dream has been smashed. And – as the rest of the film pans out – he is forced to re-evaluate what’s important to him and how he goes about trying to reach his goals.

Goshdarnit, there’s something in my eye. Dialogue, huh – who knew you could do so much with it? Which brings us to your writing task for the day….


FIRST: Do a little people-watching – in your lunch break, on your commute, out at the pub, on your way to the shop, wherever – and note down a little snippet of overheard conversation.

Or, if you don’t fancy going outside, whack on the TV or the radio and write down the first notable nugget of speech that appeals to you.

It doesn’t matter how boring or commonplace or apparently meaningless it might be. In fact, it’s worth making a habit of collecting random lines of conversation. I have a whole bunch of them hastily typed up on my phone, like:

“Jenny’s never liked chicken though, has she?”

“Do you ever feel like your teeth are coming loose?”

“I CAN’T SIT DOWN – MY PANTS ARE WONKY!” (yelled at full volume on a bus by a frustrated four-year-old)

NEXT: Take your line of dialogue and make up a story around it. Speculate wildly about the person saying it, who they’re talking to, what happened to get to this point, and what happens next.

Think about SUBTEXT and what ISN’T being said. Think about body language, tone of voice, eye contact, and the gestures that might accompany the words.

Use it as a pivotal moment in a hypothetical story – a bursting point in a character’s life – imbue it with significance, and see where it takes you.

THEN: Apply the same method to all your dialogue. Don’t waste a single word. Make sure every line of speech in your writing tells its own story and moves forward the plot, develops character, or reveals a secret. And don’t forget about the subtext.

That’s all, folks. Happy wording.

BONUS: We found this picture while searching for a stock image for ‘whisper’ and because we are now unable to unsee it, we are sharing it with you. YOU’RE WELCOME.

Image of a close up of an ear with a nose and mouth photoshopped into the inner part so it looks as though there's a face whispering into the ear. It's WEIRD.
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