Thursday, August 25, 2011

Avoiding Mannequinism, or Writing Realistic Dialog

Today we're talking dialog. Why? Because every book needs it, but writing it can be hard. When I first started writing all my characters sounded like mannequins. How does someone sound like a mannequin? Ha, it's difficult, but I have mad skills. You just write every line of dialog so stiff and formal that the reader knows the characters are plastic and dead-eyed. Viola, mannequin. So not a good thing. Do not try this at home, your computer may self destruct. And it's painful. For everyone. Just saying.

I'd share some early examples of my dialog, but it might destroy the internet with its awfulness, and then the feds would find me and turn me over to all the internet junkies to be drawn and quartered. And I burned it, so it would be hard for you to read the ashes. Some things just need to die, and my early dialog was one of them. Really.

What I'll do instead is share my friend Angela Citte's awesome dialog exercise from a writing class she's taking. The instructions were to spend a day just listening to people talk and get the feel of the cadence of their words, the flavor of their voices. Then she needed to write up a scene with nothing but dialog. That means no narration, no dialog tags--nothing but the actual speech. And the characters needed to be distinct and have voice. (That means they needed to sound like living people not mannequins. Or politicians. Shudder.)

Angela chose to listen to her kids and recreated a breakfast conversation/song. I say song because the first speaker sings everything. I can't read it without hearing a four-year-old's sing-song voice. How about you?


“I like my little doggie. Her name is Alligayla. I like my little doggie. Her name is Alligayla.”

“Lily, stop singing. You’re going to make me puke.”

“Yeah, your songs are weird.”

“And sheeeee likes to dance, and sheeeeee likes to eat some food.”

“Lily, stop singing. Eat your cereal.”

“Dogs don’t dance.”

“And sheeeee likes to sing, and sheeee likes to play with her dolls.”

“Mom, do you have some ‘duck’ tape?”

“Or some of that stuff you can stick over her mouth. Mmmm, mmmm. I can’t sing my weird song anymore.”

“That’s ‘duck’ tape, Zach.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“And sheeeee likes to comb her hair, and sheeee likes to put pretties in her hair.”


“And sheeee likes to put her make-up on, and sheee likes to wear a princess dress.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Lily, dogs don’t do ANY of that.”

“I like my little doggieeeeee. Her name is Alligayla.”

“That’s not even a real name.”

“IIIIIII like my little doggie. Her name is Alligayla.”

“I know, Lily, let’s play the quiet game and see who can keep their mouth shut the longest.”

“I think you gave me a headache . . . right here.”

“And sheeeee likes to swim in a water, and sheeee likes to go on the swirly slide.”

“You’re making me sick.”

“Yeah, and then he’ll puke all over you. Bleaaaaaa.”

“And you’rrrrre not the boss of me, and you’rrrrre not the boss of me.”


“IIIIIIIIII like my little doggie.”

[In unison] “LILY!”

So? Wasn't that delightful? Did you hear their different voices? Did they come off the page as real kids? They sure did for me. Not a mannequin in sight. I love this exercise and can't wait to apply it to my own stories. I'm going to go through a couple of scenes and remove everything except the dialog just to see if the characters sound distinct or if there is some plastic left. And then I'll delete the plastic and insert life. Ahhh, sweet dialog.

How about you, what's your favorite bit of dialog from a book or movie? Or if you write, what's your best bit of living dialog, and how did you get into your characters' heads to write it? Come on, you know you want to share.


Jonene Ficklin said...

What a great exercise! Yup, Angela's dialogue was oozing character and voice - and I could picture her kids the whole time, too. So cute!

I love the Harry Potter series for that reason. Everyone has a distinct voice and oodles of character,and comes across as real and authentic to their age. Hm, I might just have to try that exercise out on my own kids. Should be interesting . . . Thanks for a great blog today!

Nikki Mantyla said...

Ooh, that is a fantastic idea! I'm working on that too. And I like the term "mannequinism." I've been calling it "generic dialogue" and your term is much cooler (despite the thing itself not being cool). Great post!

Cherie said...

Well, the dialog is great. When I read your title I thought of this girl who keeps getting mistaken for a mannequin and thought that was your topic.

Irene B. Gardner said...

Absolutely loved this one, Leisha. You are such a character that I'd think this would come naturally for you. :D

Contractions are so important in our American English and that's something that is forgotten by a lot of writers. Otherwise it sounds wooden.

I remember when you pointed out that two of my characters sounded alike and they were from two different families. Yikers! You have to be careful with that stuff too.

acitte said...

What fun! Thanks for showing my stuff!:)

LeishaMaw said...

Jonene, JK is the queen of character...and plot, and well everything.

Nikki, ha ha, glad you liked it. :)

Cherie, wow. I can honestly say I've never heard about that happening before. So funny.

Irene, isn't learning all this stuff fun...and hard? But in the end we'll just remember the fun, right?

Angela, thanks for letting me post it. You rock!

Carolyn V said...

Love that. I have to agree with Jonene, the Harry Potter characters are easy to distinguish between because of their dialogue. JK really knows her stuff. ;)

Ashton Daye said...

What a great idea to listen to dialogue just at home. You can totally hear the kids' individual voices, and that is exactly how our characters should sound where you can hear them talking off the page to you in their own voices--not a mannequins!


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