Someone recently said to me, “Don’t you think writing dialogue is hard?” and I laughed because I think it’s the easiest part of writing fiction. If you’ve read any of my novels, you’ve probably already figured out that dialogue is what I like best: my books are heavy on conversation. Interior monologues and descriptive passages are just the necessary evils I have to endure in order to get to the next fun exchange.
I’m comfortable and happy when I’m writing dialogue . . . and I owe it all to my college freshman expos teacher and the time I failed an assignment of hers.
You may or may not know that I trundled off to college at the ripe old age of sixteen, filled with academic confidence and social terror. Every freshman had to take an expository writing class, but you could choose a particular “angle”–if you were a science major, for example, you could take an expos class that focused on research papers. I loved fiction, so I signed up for creative writing expos. The teacher was a published novelist.
I think I did okay in the class. I honestly don’t remember what grade I got overall, but I do remember the one assignment that I messed up completely, probably because as bad as my memory has always been (and it is very very bad), moments of humiliation and embarrassment manage to sear themselves permanently into my brain. And I felt very embarrassed when I misunderstood the assignment and did it wrong.
The teacher told us to sit with a group of people and to write down everything they said. That was the assignment. Easy, right? Pure transcription. So in the dining hall one day, I listened as my friends chatted, and I busily jotted down every word. Then I went back to my room and as I typed up the dialogue, I edited and tightened it, and added and tweaked and put in lots of “she saids” and descriptions of how they looked and moved, and what I assumed they were thinking. And I turned that in.
The teacher handed it back to me a week later with a look of pity and disappointment. “This wasn’t what I wanted,” she said. “The whole point of the exercise was to write down exactly how people talk–the ways they repeat themselves and break off in mid-sentence and get off track and change the subject and make funny noises and ignore each other . . . I didn’t want a perfect little edited piece of fiction. I wanted the real thing so you could learn to write more realistic dialogue.”
I had failed the simplest assignment of the whole year.
And failing it was, arguably, the most useful thing I did during my whole college career. Because from that moment on, I started to pay attention to how people talked–how they really, really talked and not how I wanted them to talk. I realized that no one speaks in perfect sentences, that people seldom attack a fraught subject directly, that friends interrupt each other all the time, that everyone has his own patterns and disfluencies.
From then on, whenever I wrote dialogue, I remembered the distinction between the artificial and the real. I still wanted most of my characters to sound a little more polished and intelligent than–let’s face it–most of us do when we’re just sitting around with our friends (one of the great joys of writing fiction to me is that your characters get to use the brilliant bons mots that you yourself only think of when it’s too late), but I’ve also learned that no conversation goes from point A to point B to point C perfectly in real life, so it shouldn’t in fiction either.
But my point here isn’t really about writing dialogue. It’s about failing an assignment, and learning more from that failure than I did from all the ones I completed successfully. Because sometimes you have to remember that you don’t know it all in order to learn anything at all.