I think we all probably do it. At least I know that I do, and some of the homeless I’ve seen wandering downtown by Acacia Park. We have pretend conversations with people who aren’t there. I hope I’m discreet enough about it that others don’t notice that I’m doing it. But it is basically working through a problem, practicing the dialogue for what I might say in a given situation. I’ve been told by a counselor that it's a good thing to do. It prepares you for communication. It helps you explore ways to say things, how to respond to a variety of responses, and helps work out the kinks and find the right words. It also can give confidence to say something that is hard to say or going to be received poorly. It’s basically role playing all by yourself. It’s okay to do, as long as you know there isn’t someone else there. If you start hearing answers from your invisible role playing partner, or even seeing him, it’s probably time to visit a specialist.
Dialogue in fiction must read realistically, but funny enough, it can’t be written realistically. It takes a lot of fine honing and practice to write good dialogue and write it well. If we wrote everything a person says in real life, it would slow the pace so much the book would only be good as a doorstop. When we put in fillers, say to add a beat or give a certain style, it must be done precisely and sparingly—like ground cloves, a lot goes a long way. Every question asked doesn’t have to be directly answered. Dull, dull, dull. Usually it’s best to ignore the question and say something else. Readers often already know the answer anyway. Why waste words? And for goodness sake, forget the “she shrieked” “he retorted” “she inquired” “he ejaculated.” And leave out the adverbs telling how he/she said it: morosely, grumpily, remorsefully, obnoxiously. The action and strong prose should show how they’re saying their lines. He said, she said works fine. They are nearly invisible. And sometimes, when a character’s voice is obvious, or if it’s just two people going back and forth, it is possible to leave out attributives completely. That is always nice, as long as it’s not confusing who is talking.
One review I got about my book Chloe’s Guardian said, “…starts out with some painful teenage dialogue,” which was countered with another review that said, “Captures adolescent dialogue to perfection!” The first review sounded like that kind it takes me a half day to recover from. Then I realized I must have accomplished my goal. Have you listened to teenagers talk to each other? It can be truly painful. (I love ’em, those teens, but sometimes, if they say “like” one more time I might scream.) One reader I talked to thought that, in the first scene which had all three girls, every one of them said “like” every other word. Only one character uses “like,” and I had to put it in very sparingly or my book would have splatted against too many walls thrown by irate readers who couldn’t take the torture. But my few inserts got the point across. It’s a tricky business. And of course some readers are going to have a lower tolerance anyway for even one “like” and those will just have to let me know they weren’t happy with my choice. Maybe they should do some teen volunteering to help de-condition them from “like” adversity. The lady who said it was painful at least ended her review with “it improves” and “hang in, you get rewarded.” Not the best review, but at least even in its negativity it says to read it.
So the next time you’re walking by the park, working out your possible dialogue for an upcoming conflict, remember a few things: practice before you get to the situation, consider several scenarios and role play, don’t talk out loud (or at least hold your phone to your ear), leave out unnecessary adverbs, and don’t retort or shriek. Just say it.
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Life with Quadruplets
As a mother of quadruplets, I've had plenty of crazy experiences raising "supertwins." I blog a lot of memories about my kids. Sometimes just my thoughts on things. I get those sometimes—when my brain works. Which is about one third of the time.