Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 1, Chapter 9

By Anne Lamott

Part 1, Chapter 9

Dialogue

  • You know how a conversation between Beckett and Castle is more fun to listen to than, say, your average lunch conversation? Lamott is going to tell us how to make our characters sound more like Castle. Or, at least better than your average lunchroom chatterer.
  • Dialogue can be really fun to read or really awful, according to Lamott. In fiction, the trick is to show who your characters are while also giving them language that doesn't make anyone wince when they read it aloud.
  • Lamott says dialogue should sound more like a movie than like real life and that good dialogue can really get the plot moving. Unsurprisingly, this takes work and skill from the author, but Lamott is here to help with a few tips:
  • 1) Read the dialogue aloud and see how it sounds. You might find yourself listening to other people's words and editing them down to good novel dialogue in your head. Apparently that's just one of those things that happens to writers after a while.
  • 2) Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what that character says. All the characters need to sound different from each other, and even harder, they shouldn't all sound like you, the author. Really hearing what each character says may show you a lot of other things about your characters, too, from what kind of car they drive to whether they're going to marry another character. We're betting you can tell Batman's dialogue apart from the Joker's without trying too hard, for example.
  • 3) Try putting two people who really want to avoid each other together. Speaking of Batman and the Joker, Lamott thinks you'll get interesting results if you put two people who really want to avoid each other in the same elevator and then imagine that it gets stuck. She says seeing what the characters do and don't say in such a situation will tell you a lot.
  • After these useful tips, Lamott reminds us that dialogue is the way to nail character. She basically says you have to stick a character in a situation of some sort and see what comes out of that character's mouth.
  • For instance, you could imagine a guy walking down a street and wearing a leather topcoat to keep out the cold, and see what happens when he meets a beautiful girl with a harelip and a Gucci bag. If you jam on dialogue for a while, something will happen.
  • The better you know the characters, the more you'll understand their points of view.
  • Lamott warns us to be sure we're drawing on the real world and not fiction when we write characters and start imagining their viewpoints.
  • Understanding characters this way should lead to compassion for them, even when they're villains. Or especially when they're villains.
  • Unless you're writing a formula movie or a comic book, the villain can't be wholly evil. There will be good things about the villain and flaws in the hero in most other genres.
  • To describe these things well, though, you can't just write down whatever pops into your head. You'll have to understand something about your heroes and villains deep down to make things really work.
  • Lamott says it's important to remember that, in a way, your characters come from your unconscious mind, and you sort of have to pick a stock character and then pay a lot of attention to what your unconscious is telling you in order to make that person real.
  • In a certain way, you're just the typist writing down what your unconscious mind creates, and you'll have to listen carefully to be a good typist.
  • Basically, it's helpful to imagine your unconscious as a collaborator you can learn from. Sometimes this makes a writer feel less alone.
  • Lamott says dialogue written in dialect is usually a pain to read. If you turn out to be brilliant at writing dialect and everyone loves it, that's fine—but otherwise, you should skip it.

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