After a solid run of editing, it has become apparent that the dialogue in my WIP needs work. This is a good thing! I figure if you can identify a problem, you’re half way towards fixing it — and I already have some great leads to follow-up. So my goal this week is to pay attention to the way real people talk.
Sounds simple? Well it should be, after all I come in to contact with lots of people during the course of my day. Already I’ve been to school, the shopping mall, had a tradesman drop by the house and had a conversation with my elderly neighbour through an open window. The problem is, I can not remember one single detail about language choice, filler words, or colloquialisms from any of these conversations.
But because I’m not the kind to beat myself up over it, I got to thinking why this was a problem. And it occurred to me that some of us just look at the world in different ways.
When I was a second year law student, a criminal law lecturer arranged for some post-grad students to run into the lecture hall, knock some papers down and steal the overhead projector. We didn’t know it was coming and it happened very quickly. We were then asked to put together our own witness statements: How many perpetrators, height, descriptions, clothing and a detailed breakdown of what happened including time they were in the room.
The variances in our statements were shocking. We had different numbers of people, hair colours, ethnic groups and height estimations. More than anything I learned witness statements can be incredibly inaccurate. But it did encourage me to measure every person who visited our flat after that against the door post until I could more accurately measure height. (Strangely, that was how I learned I was so much shorter than my friends. I’ve always felt quite tall)!
You’d think my powers of observation would have improved after that experience. But a few years later I was a potential witness to a real life crime, and once again I was literally looking the other way.
We were living in the UK at the time, and a friend (a local) had been driving us around Essex. While we were driving home through the countryside a car overtook us at high-speed. A short time later we rounded a corner just as the car in question crashed into a wall and two young guys leaped out, jumped over a fence and ran off. The police, who were obviously after them, pulled up and gave chase. We stopped, and eventually were interviewed by the police.
What did I see?
A guy standing on the other side of the road outside a pub. No, I can’t remember any physical details about him either, but I do remember he had the strangest expression on his face. He was absolutely transfixed, staring with a mix of incomprehension and utter captivation; a man literally witnessing a car crash. And my writer’s brain was already building the story behind that expression. (Although if I’d followed his gaze, I might have seen the actual story unfolding…).
Fortunately, the three other people in the car were paying attention.
The upshot is, I have amazing powers of observation — I really do. It’s just that I look at the world in my own unique way. When someone is talking to me I’m not captivated by their word choices, because I’m looking for the meaning behind them. People often don’t say exactly what they mean — their body language, gestures and demeanor are all communicating too, and these are what I find fascinating.
The teacher at school was efficiently busy, but looked up when I spoke, smiled and her response was delivered in a lovely soft, clear voice that is easily understood by six year olds and their much older parents!
The lady from church I bumped into at the supermarket was wearing a vivid red top — because we spoke about how the colour was so bright and cheerful. She gave me a fast hug, and I was impressed, as I often am when I see her, that her eyes sparkle with genuine pleasure when she speaks with me.
The tradesman was softly spoken, efficient and kindly (not at all the norm). And my elderly neighbour who was painting his deck, stood up to speak with me. Although he’s not a tall man, he always stands up straight and I can hear the pride in his voice — especially today when he was recounting how he’d rescued his cat.
No snippets of conversation, but gleaning all sorts of little nuggets to file away for characters. It’s probably why my descriptions tend to be stronger than my dialogue. But I’ll get there. I’ll just have to start jotting things surreptitiously down in a little notebook and see if I get any strange looks!
Many thanks to Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez for hosting this blog hop. I still can’t figure out how to make the linky run on the blog – but if you click here you can join in – or see what’s inspiring everyone else the week. Have a great week and happy writing!