Want to Write Better Dialogue? Close Your Eyes and Listen

(I originally wrote this for the Imagination Soup blog.)

Wanna know a secret? When it comes to writing dialogue, I have an advantage. Why? Because I was a journalist for … well, far too long. I honed my listening skills during interviews for more than 6,000 articles. And there were usually at least three sources for each story. Sometimes more. So I’ve actively listened to, roughly, 18,000 conversations.

Remember at the end of my last post about dialogue, where I mentioned listening to a lot of real conversations? And where I said that there was another reason writers struggle with dialogue? It’s because they don’t listen to enough dialogue.

During every conversation, I was always waiting for not only those perfect quotes journalists live for but also for the person’s real story to surface as they slowly got comfortable talking with me. Even without paying attention to their body language, I could tell by their voice when they’d stopped talking to a journalist and started talking to Lisa – and vice versa.

I’ve interviewed people from all walks of life, from an astronaut who’d spent almost five months in space to a homeless family living under a bridge. They all had two things in common: changes in their voice during the conversations and their own unique dialogue.

A voice often shakes when someone’s emotional. A voice gets louder when someone’s agitated or excited. The volume goes down – sometimes to a whisper – when a person has an internal revelation during a conversation. Pitch changes. (For an example of pitch, think of your tone when flirting verses giving a speech for work.) When they’re trying to hide the truth, people stammer. Stutter. Pause more. Say umm and uh more. When they lie, the speed at which they talk changes. They talk faster (if they’ve been talking slowly) and slower (if they’ve been talking quickly). When what’s being said – or asked – makes them nervous, anxious, afraid, or stressed, their voice gets dry. Hoarse. So they clear their throat a lot.

So here’s some homework. Go to a café. Close your eyes and listen to the conversations around you. Listen for voice changes. Dialogue. Don’t listen to what they say – although that can be fun or frightening; listen to how they say it. Turn on your TV and listen to a movie instead of watching it. Your ears will pick up on more if you have your eyes closed. During the movie, listen for voice changes and dialogue. Listen to a sitcom, rom-com, drama, horror movie. The more genres the better. Here’s a fun tip: Listen to a movie in a language you don’t know. You’ll be able to pick up on emotions just by the changes in their voices. Listen to movies for kids. For teens. For adults. Notice the differences in voice and dialogue based on genre and audience.

Expert tip: When you’re writing, put foam earplugs in your ears and read a passage, page, chapter, entire manuscript – whatever – aloud. You’ll easily hear where the dialogue’s clunky and “off.”

Let Me be the Devil on Your Shoulder to Help With Dialogue

(I originally wrote this for the Imagination Soup blog.)

We talk all the time, so why is dialogue so difficult to get just right when we’re writing? I blame English teachers. Just kidding. Kinda. Let me explain. From day one we’re taught to write using standard English. But we don’t talk that way, now do we? Admit it: When you’re writing, there’s an English teacher sitting like an angel on your shoulder, isn’t there? We all have one. It’s great when you want to submit a grammatically correct manuscript to an agent or editor. It’s not so great when it comes to dialogue because we don’t speak in standard English. Having an English teacher sitting like an angel on your shoulder is one reason why a writer struggles with dialogue. (I’m exaggerating for effect here, btw.)

Let’s say you’re writing a scene where a mom is mad at her son for not doing his homework – a common occurrence for him – and the boy lies about what happened. If you wrote in standard English, the scene would go something like this.

“Tom, your teacher called me. She has had to call so many times this semester, I know she has to have me on speed dial by now. She said that – once again – you did not turn in your homework. What is going on with you? It seems as if you are trying to flunk fifth grade.”

“Mother, I did do my homework; however, the dog ate it. It is not fair to punish me for something the dog did.”

But if you wrote it in nonstandard English, like we talk in real life, it’d go something like this.

“Thomas. Allen. Smith. Guess who just called me – for the zillionth time this semester. Your teacher. I swear that woman has me on speed dial. You didn’t turn in your homework. Again. What. Is. Going. On? Are you trying to flunk?”

“But Mooooooom! I. Did. My. Homework. Honest! But … umm … the dog, well, uh, it ate it. How can you blame me for somethin’ Spot did? Geez!”

Both passages say the same thing. But notice the differences, such as complete sentences verses fragments. No contractions verses contractions. A dropped G.

Dialogue is not one-size-fits-all because it’s about individual characters. It’s also about the setting. Think about it. If this scene had played out in front of the teacher, the mom and her son would most likely have used a hybrid of the two examples.

So how do you know what rules to follow when writing dialogue? Wait for it. Wait for it. There are no rules. Mwahahahaha. There’s just listening to a lot of real conversations and knowing your characters. Feel free to think of me as the dialogue devil on your other shoulder.

Oh, and as for the other reason we struggle with dialogue? You’ll have to tune in next time. (Insert devilish laugh here.)

Writing Trick: Fill the Balloon – With Writing Prompt

(I originally wrote this for The TeachingBooks Blog)

Remember the first time you blew up a balloon? Someone pulled a balloon out of a bag and handed it to you. Fresh out of the bag, it didn’t even look a lot like a balloon, but you could see how it could be – with a little work. And you’d seen a balloon before, so you knew what it should look like.

With the image of a balloon in mind, you filled your cheeks with air and blew into it. It started to take shape. You blew more air into it. It got bigger. Then you could really start to see what it was going to be like when you were done. You began imagining all that you could do with it. Imagined sharing it with others.

The more you breathed into it, the more you stretched it. Expanded it. Each time you breathed more into it, the tension increased. You felt like it could pop. You even braced a little, in case it did. Finally, it was as big as it could be without popping. Then you tied the end so the air couldn’t leak out. You had a fully inflated balloon.

That is writing.

You start with a story idea (the balloon fresh out of the bag). You write one sentence to sum up the story. You’ve read stories, so you know what a good one is like, what you love to read. Maybe it’s a book with all kinds of details. Maybe it’s a graphic novel with lots of images. Maybe it’s in free verse. With your favorite books in mind, keep writing. Add details to your story. That’s like the balloon as it begins to take shape. Examples of details to add to make the story start taking shape include what the character feels about what’s happening around them. What they see (maybe the ocean), hear (the roar of the waves), smell (the saltiness), taste (not all senses apply to all situations), feel (sand between their toes), and touch (water lapping at their ankles). How they react. How they talk compared to how someone else talks. What’s the character want? Need? Then you throw in conflict. That stretches the character, just like filling the balloon with air stretches it.

But don’t stop there. Keep going. Add more tension and more until you feel like the character can’t take much more. That’s the balloon getting so big you think it might pop and you even brace a little in case it does. That’s the climax of the story.

You’re almost to the end. So it’s time to edit your work, rewrite, and tie up all the loose ends so you have a complete story. 

Writing prompt: With the balloon analogy in mind, write a short story about a time when someone said or did something unkind to you.

Overcoming the Challenges to Writing Your Life Story

(I originally wrote this for the Imagination Soup blog.)

My middle-grade novel in verse, Starfish, is based on my life. So people often ask me, “How can I turn my personal story into a fiction novel?” On the surface, it might seem like the easiest book you’ll ever write. That’s the problem, though. That’s on the surface. If you’ve ever tried to write your story, you know it’s a challenge. 

Challenge No. 1: People don’t want to know everything. We’ve all had our struggles, so we all have plenty of material to work with. The temptation is to tell the reader every tiny detail of your life and include everyone you’ve ever met. That’s overwhelming for the reader. And, if you’ve done this, it’s overwhelming for the writer; that’s why you give up and stop writing the novel.  

Solution No. 1: Leave a lot on the cutting room floor. What events in your life – good or bad – made you, you, make your story unique? Think about how you’ve used or want to use what happened to you to change or help the reader and the world. Look at it like the Kennedy Center Honors. When someone receives a lifetime achievement award, the audience gets a highlight reel of the defining moments that shaped the person’s life and allowed them to have an impact on the world. That’s your template.

Challenge No. 2: You have to be honest – with the reader and yourself. While the good things that happen to us are some of our most precious memories, it’s usually the bad moments that define and shape us. They’re not pleasant to even think about or share with our closest friends we trust – let alone put in print for strangers around the world to see, strangers who might not “get it.” Often, they’re embarrassing. Sometimes our reactions to those moments reveal a side of ourselves we don’t want to admit we have, and we definitely don’t want anyone to ever know that’s who we really are. Write about those moments. That’s the story.

Solution No. 2: You have to be real and raw. In Starfish, Ellie takes a beating, emotionally. I always tell readers, “Not everything that happens to Ellie happened to me, but a version of everything that happens to Ellie happened to me. Ellie got the watered-down version.” Telling the world that, when it came to my weight and my body, my mom saw me as a thing was not easy to write about. I wept writing those poems. I weep thinking about them. I’ll never read them aloud. Know what’s worse? The moment I realized I had to accept that was the truth: My mom saw me as a thing. With the fictionalized version of your story, one thing must be nonfiction: your emotions. If your story lacks authentic emotions, you’ll never connect with the reader. And what do writers want more than anything? Christy Anne Martine says it best: “I want someone to read these words and understand me for just one second so I’m not alone with my thoughts.”

3 Tips for Writing in Verse

(I originally wrote this for a presentation with The Dalton School.)

Think of writing in verse like tweeting 

When you Tweet, you have just a few characters to get your point across, right? And so sometimes you spill your thoughts into the Tweet and then have to start figuring out what to cut so you can get to and keep the most important part, the heart of your message. Think of writing in verse like that. Take a passage you’ve written in prose and start cutting. 

Since Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is in the public domain, let’s use it as an example. I can rewrite the beginning in verse using only 92 words and convey the same meaning compared to 274 Carroll words used in prose. Is it exactly the same? No. But it includes the same main points you need to know to tell the same story.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (beginning retold in verse by Lisa Fipps)

Stretched out on
the soft grass under
the summer sun,
Alice nearly fell asleep.
“What a snoozefest,” she yawned and then
glanced at her sister’s book.
All words.
No pictures.
“Bor-ing!” Alice said.
The word still hung in the air when
a white rabbit with
pink eyes hippity-hopped right by her and
whipped a watch out of his waist-coat pocket.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”
He took off running.
“Now that’s not boring!”
Alice said, chasing the rabbit down a hole.

She didn’t even think about
how she’d get out.

Beginning of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll 

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversations?”

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again. 

End a line in verse before finishing a thought

One way to keep the reader moving through a poem is bending a line before you finish a thought. 

Notice the same example of my version of the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. What is she sitting on? Under what? What happens after she yawns? The word hangs in the air when what happens? A white rabbit with what? He hops by her and does what? 

The white space becomes a part of your poem

Use the white space on the page with as much intention as you use your words. In my verse version of the Alice in Wonderland example, notice the break between all that happened in the beginning and the end. That little bit of what space – just one simple line – separates the next thought and sets it apart, so you get a cliffhanger effect. Here’s another example, using a poem from my book, Starfish. (This is not how it appeared in my book, but it could have.)

FOR JUST A WHILE

I
  step
         down
into the pool.

The water is bathwater warm
but feels cool
compared to the blisteringly hot air.
Kick. Gliiiiiiide.
Stroke. Gliiiiiiide.
Side
         to
                  side
                  and
         back
again.

Dive under the surface.
Soar to the top.
Arch my back.
Flip.
Flop.

As soon as I slip into the pool,
I am weightless.
Limitless.
For just a while.

The Leaning Tree

I am the leaning tree. (Photo (C) by Author Lisa Fipps)

See this crooked tree? It started out just like all the other trees, but something happened to it when it was young. When it was just getting started. Some kind of trauma. 

But because it was a tree and it’s in a tree’s DNA to grow, it grew. And even though it was in the same soil as the trees near it and had the same fresh air, sunshine, and rain, it never grew in the same way. 

It’s not as tall. It’s not as strong. And it leans. A lot. 

It’s behind, perpetually playing catch-up. What it needed was for someone to notice. To come alongside it. To brace it to make it strong where the trauma had made it weak. To help it reset its course. But no one did. So it just keeps going like it always has. Every day it keeps trying to be just like all the other trees. Even though it’s not. Every day it grows as best it can. Every. Day. 

This is what happens to a child who experiences trauma. They can have everything everyone else does, but until someone notices the trauma, notices what’s been done to the child, and comes alongside to brace them, give them strength, and reset their course, the child just keeps going like they always have as they become a teenager and then an adult. 

Every day the person who suffered a childhood trauma keeps trying to be just like everyone else. Even though they’re not. Every day they grow as best they can. Every. Day. Until the healing begins. 

This tree is me.

© Author Lisa Fipps. Do not copy or print any part of this without written permission from the author.

Dandelion Bouquets

I still love picking dandelions. (Photo (C) by Author Lisa Fipps)

When I was a kid, every time dandelions popped up in our yard, I would pluck every single one, hearing that familiar snap of the stem, smelling that earthy scent, feeling the sticky sap staining my fingers. When my little hands couldn’t hold any more, I’d hide the bouquet behind my back and head to the house. 

I’d open the squeaky screen door and call out, “Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Mom. I have a surprise for you!” 

“It’s not a snake, is it?” she’d ask as the screen door slammed behind me. 

“No, it’s not a snake.”

It was a fair question to ask me. She hated snakes. Was absolutely terrified of them. And I’d caught a gardener once when playing with my neighbor. I was so proud of it. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Mom. I have a surprise for you!” I’d said. She opened her eyes … and screamed. My neighbor and I decided to keep it as a shared pet – at his house. Because … screaming.)

With the dandelion bouquet behind my back I’d say, “Now, don’t peek.” (Because I would have.) 

“I won’t,” Mom would say. And she never did. She loved surprises. Well … except said snake.

I’d gently place the dandelions in her hands and say, “Okay. You can open your eyes.”

As soon as she did, she’d smile. That smile meant everything to me. She’d suffered deep depression for a decade or more after my dad died, so to see her smile made me feel like I was easing her pain. For at least a while. 

“Oh, thank you!” Mom would say. “They’re beautiful!” Then she’d wrap her arms around me and hug me tight. I love them, and I love you.” She’d put them in water and display them in the living room with all the pride you would dozens of roses.

We were poor, so I didn’t have money to buy flowers. But she always had dandelions. As soon as I got my first job detasseling corn at 13, I started buying her flowers. 

“Give me flowers when I’m alive to enjoy them, not when I’m dead,” she always said. 

When I gave her 70 flowers for her 70th birthday, she told me they were beautiful and thanked me. Then she got quiet. “I miss all those dandelions, though. If you see some sometime, pick me a bouquet, okay?”

So I did. 

When I told her to close her eyes and hold out her hands, she said, “It’s not a snake, is it?”

© Author Lisa Fipps. Do not copy or print any part of this without written permission from the author.

Raining Inside and Out

Drops
pitter-patter,
patter-pitter
d
o
w
n
the window
d
o
w
n
my cheeks
u
n
t
i
l
the cloud’s cried out
and
so am I.

© Author Lisa Fipps. Do not copy or print any part of this without written permission from the author.

 

Like a June Bug Tied to a String

My maternal grandfather was a coal miner. He couldn’t read or write, but he built this house, where he and my granny raised 10 kids. It still stands today. My granny tacked quilts, using those to keep everyone warm, and quilted to make money to pay bills. She was short and always wore high heels – even when going up and down a ladder to wallpaper to make money. (Family photos)

I spent some summers with my granny in Hazard, Kentucky. Those summers gave me some of my favorite childhood memories. Swimming where I had to watch out for cottonmouths. Sitting on the floor and snapping beans while Granny rocked and watched her soap operas. Granny setting up a quilting frame on the porch and aunts coming over to help tack a quilt. Eating fried bologna sandwiches. Visiting an aunt in a holler and using her outhouse. Trying a string around a June bug, letting it go, and holding onto the string while the bug flew in circles. It’s kinda like flying a kite. Why? Just to have something to do. There was no money to buy toys or reliable vehicles to go anywhere.

I’ve never watched a movie that better explains what life is like for so many people in the Midwest who have Appalachian roots than Hillbilly Elegy. Their grandparents and parents – desperate for better lives – leaving everything and everyone they knew, and seeking a better life working at steel mills and factories in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Hard jobs. Hazardous jobs. But they did it. They were proud of their paychecks. Their work. Their companies. They’re good people. They remember where they come from. When they have long weekends or vacations, where do they often go? Back home.

The last time I went to Hazard to take my mom to a funeral, I couldn’t believe how much the area continues to stay the same and yet change. There are fewer coal mines, which means fewer jobs. Less options. More desperation. More hopelessness. Making it a mecca for drug dealers.

First came Oxycontin, people often getting the drug from Medicaid to treat cancer, black lung, and to cope with injuries and pain, and then selling it. Or stealing it from sick loved ones and selling it. Now it’s meth. And heroin.

So many lives have been shaped or warped by two generational struggles: poverty and dysfunction. But you’d be hard-pressed to find people with tighter bonds. Stronger faith. More survival instinct.

Ironically, so many people escaping the generational struggles in Appalachia and seeking better lives by flocking north lost their jobs when mills closed, and factories relocated to countries where labor’s cheaper – leaving them right back where they started from.

Every time you try to get out, to change, to have a better life, you get sucked by into it all. Often, it’s in the name of family. Families fighting. Leaving. Coming together. Struggling. Helping. Hating. Loving. It’s messy.

You end up going in circles – just like a June bug, someone holding onto a string you’re tethered to while you’re trying to fly away … free.

© Author Lisa Fipps. Do not copy or print any part of this without written permission from the author.

Trying to Bloom While Dying

The dying tree. (Photo (C) by Author Lisa Fipps)

It’s spring, and all the other trees are in full bloom. This one is trying to bloom, even though it’s dying. 

It’s worn out. Tired. The signs are everywhere. And yet it’s trying with all its might to bloom. To keep trying. To keep going. Because it always has. Every spring. Without fail. 

For years. It’s weathered all kinds of storms. Enjoyed it share of sunshine. Nurtured life in its branches. Provided sheltering shade. 

One day, sooner or later, this tree won’t be here anymore. I’m going to miss it. Mourn it. But I’ll know that it was time. It was done. 

I look at this tree trying to bloom while dying and see my mom, who’s dying of Alzheimer’s. 

(I wrote this in the spring of 2020. Mom died in the spring of 2021.)

© Author Lisa Fipps. Do not copy or print any part of this without written permission from the author.