How to Write Interesting Dialog: Put on Your Spy Goggles

My favorite piece of writing advice is this:
When my creative writing professor first recommended it to our class,

I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my chest. I had been in the habit of listening in on other people for years, and always felt pretty guilty about it. As he spoke, I suddenly realized that there was nothing to feel guilty about. It wasn’t eavesdropping, after all. It was research!

So, why spy?

Listening in on other people’s conversations can give you inspirations for new stories and new characters, for one thing. More importantly, it gives you a better understanding of natural speech cadences and dialog progression. There is nothing like listening to two people having a real conversation to make you realize three key elements of writing interesting dialog:

  • Conversations hardly ever progress logically.
  • People say crazy things.
  • Everyone has a unique vocabulary and syntax.

Depending on your comfort level with this concept, you can go so far as to sit in a coffee house and transcribe interesting bits of conversation from around you. You can also just “take it in,” and later, in your writing, draw on your memories of different voices and memorable phrases. Creating characters based on real people and writing dialog that real people might actually speak creates more interest in the scene, more believable dialog, more precious, memorable moments, and more interesting writing.

One of the things you will notice immediately in your eavesdropping career is that people rarely speak in “correct” English. One of your challenges as a writer is to discriminate between which elements of “bad” English are confusing, annoying, and should be edited, and which elements are charming and help to build your character. Therefore, when seeking an editor for your work, you will also want to make sure that the editor has the ability and subtlety to let your characters’ individual voices shine. And, might I say, many of WordsRU’s fiction editors are perfectly qualified for just that.