Monday, May 24, 2010

Those Voices in Your Head

One of the main reasons teens dislike certain authors is, according to my entirely random survey, "They never sound like anyone I know." I think it's really difficult to get down authentic teenspeak; in fact, I think it's really difficult to get down any human dialogue that sounds authentic. But dialogue makes or breaks a story: if the writer lacks a good ear, it becomes dreary reading.

To some degree, you have to prune dialogue. I have this weird knack of remembering fairly long passages of conversation (and then forgetting to pick up ketchup two shopping trips in a row). Here is an actual dialogue that took place in my house on a Sunday morning:

Emma: "Mom, did you know that the juice of a dandelion root will remove moles?"

Mom: "How do you know that? And why would you want to?"

Emma: "I looked it up. It's right on Google."

Mom: "I'm beginning to think that you have too much free time. And you don't have moles."

Dad: "We have moles? Where? In the garden?"

Emma: "But I could get moles. You get moles when you get old. I never want moles."

Dad: "I haven't seen any moles and I was outside clearing brush."

Christopher: "Who ate the rest of that pizza?"

Emma: "You did. Duh."

Christopher: "I thought there was a piece left."

Emma: "You have to boil the dandelion root."

Mom: "Do you drink it or put it right on the moles?"

Dad: "Is that what moles eat? Dandelions?"

Christopher: "Are there any pizza rolls in the freezer?"

Dad: "You know moles are also spies..."

And so it went.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was "life, with the dull parts taken out."

I think the same applies to dialogue, maybe even more so.

Right now, I have changed the dialogue on a new YA no less than 17 times. I haven't written more than three pages in any one "voice", but none of them make me go, "Yeah, that's what she sounds like." I jot down different opening sentences that I think will fit this girl, but I think I'm having so much trouble because she's not really present in my mind. I'm going to put this idea away for a time, and wait for it to happen.

My guess is that writing good dialogue, dialogue that advances the plot and fleshes out the characters, rises from listening to those voices in your head of characters that don't exist - at least not yet.

I'm wondering how many centuries ago they would have burned you at the stake for admitting that.


Marcia said...

Well, if the purpose of dialogue is to make 'em laugh, you did. I think your family's discussion is a riot.

Anne Spollen said...

That's how it went while we were making pancakes for the kids on a Sunday morning. Everyone is sort of in their own little weekend orbit.

Yes, they would make funny dialogue, but our story - dishes, laundry, school, work, is a pretty dull one...

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Dialogue is hard to write naturally. And when you're doing age groups from the one in which you find yourself moored in -- it is surely a challenge.

You have a lovely blog. Come visit mine, WRITING IN THE CROSSHAIRS, if you have the time, Roland

Glynis said...

I think that is what has put me off writing YA. I am not sure I would get the voice right.

LOL your conversation sounded like my life before they all flew the nest. Just add an extra girl in there.

Anne Spollen said...

Hey, Roland - great name! Thanks, I'll visit soon.

I think that the voice is, by far, the most difficult aspect of writin YA, Glynis. It makes or breaks the story.

An extra girl! Yikes, Emma is more than I can handle. I give you credit.

Glynis said...

LOL Anne, my extra girl is called Emma!!

Mary Witzl said...

I love the way everyone in your family was thinking of something a little different. We have conversations like that ALL the time, especially when I'm on the computer, but still trying to stay in touch with the rest.

Now I'm wondering if they'll ever be able to program moles' DNA so they'll only eat dandelion roots? That would be so cool.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I love writing dialogue. I've contemplated writing plays and screenplays because I love it so much, but yes, it's not the easiest to make it feel genuine. But perhaps you're right--perhaps we only need to listen to those voices in our head a little more closely ;)

Anne Spollen said...

Is there another name for a girl, Glynis?

I've always loved that name, since I discovered Jane Austen. Conveniently, it was also her paternal grandmother's name. I had no idea it would ever become so popular.

Yes, Mary, multitasking is really just another term for not fully focusing on any one thing. And they can't program moles to do that- what will happen when Emma gets old? She needs those dandelions to cure her moles. (I have moles; I'm sure she looked at me and went, "Oh, no -- is that my future?")

I love writing dialogue, too Carolina - and welcome! But I only love it when it sounds perfect, when I can pretty much hear the characters saying the lines. Otherwise, it's just dreadful.