When I was a little girl and my Minnesota grandparents came to visit, we shared them around for sleeping purposes. One night I would share my double bed with Grandma, and the next night my brother and I would switch places, and I’d sleep on his top bunk while Grandpa settled into the bottom bunk.
Grandma was a bit of a night owl like I am, so it was never hard to keep her talking. Grandpa was raised a farm boy, and in his mind nighttime was for sleeping. But I devised a clever system: if he paid the ransom of telling me one story from his boyhood, after that I’d stay quiet and let him drift off.
His stories—about bottle-feeding the little black lamb, or the fight with his brother Henry that ended with Grandpa dumping an entire bucket of cow-fresh milk over Henry’s head—are the earliest tales in what has now become my extensive personal collection: I’ve been stockpiling stories from my “peeps” ever since.
One of the “ask the author” questions kids present me with over and over again is, “Where do you get ideas for your stories?” For me, a big part of the answer is, “through other people.” I love hearing other people’s stories—and what I find is that the more I’m willing to listen, the more people will tell me. I’ve apparently cultivated my listening skills to such a degree that even strangers share deeply personal accounts. In the interests of preserving friendships, I’ve taken to inserting a warning label into my conversations: “I’m a writer, you know. This is really good stuff. Unless you swear me to secrecy, I will use this.” Surprisingly few people take me up on that offer; the truth, I think, is that most people want their stories to find a life outside themselves. If they don’t plan to write them out on their own, they’re delighted at the idea of someone else writing them down.
So I use their stories, but I do maintain some sense of discretion: They are often heavily disguised, and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Encourage your young writers to imagine they’re riding though life while tuned into talk radio. For younger writers, helping them to develop strong listening skills may be the key. For slightly older writers, you might want to also discuss issues around respecting privacy. And encourage them to explore how real-life stories work great as seed material, but don’t always translate directly into good fiction: Sometimes the writer’s art is not in finding good material, but in knowing how much of it, and how best, to use it to tell a story that the world wants to hear.
When I was a kid, my career ambitions wavered between detective, mad scientist, shoe salesperson, teacher, and spy. Fortuitously, most of them have become critical facets of my grown-up job as a writer.
My practice as a spy came in handy just recently when I needed to create authentic-sounding dialogue for characters who are young teenagers. In other words, I eavesdropped like crazy on my teenage nephews and their friends—volunteering to drive carpool for a few outings proved to be a goldmine—but I also lurked via social media and positioned myself strategically near random teenagers in public. It may be that their Adult Detection Systems alerted them to my interest, and therefore skewed my results. But seriously, dude, I doubt it: I m like, 1 gr8 spy.
Eavesdropping was a great reminder of the way that all of us, not just teenagers, really talk: there are different rhythms to different people’s speech, we use current slang and off-color terms, we prefer contractions and other shortcuts. I was reminded all over again how much less formal spoken language is. Real conversations are composed more of interruptions, fragmented speech, repetitions for emphasis, grunts of acknowledgment, body language, and silences than they are of formally structured sentences.
You can rarely, on the other hand, just recreate an actual word-for-word chat in a story: your writing would too quickly be weighed down by the outright jibber-jabber and the sheer number of conversational “dudes” (or whatever term is currently in vogue in middle schools near you). Making your characters sound authentic is important, but the way I explain it to my adult writing students is, if you’re trying to establish that a character has a Scottish brogue, you get only one “Nay, Lassie,” per 25,000 words.
And remember that dialogue is also charged with the large task of helping to tell the story: it reveals characterization, advances the plot, and provides action. That’s a lot for those lassies and dudes to have to carry—no wonder it’s a struggle for young writers to write good dialogue!
Reminding your students to ration out their slang and eliminate excess is critical, but more important, I’ve found, is to remember to give them permission to make their dialogue informal. If you don’t, they too often end up writing stilted conversations where everyone sounds like a nineteenth-century British butler or a walking research paper.
Effective dialogue lands somewhere in the middle between the way people really talk and the way we’ve all been taught to write prose. Effective dialogue is less redundant and more expressive than real speech; it’s less formal and more fragmented than the rest of the story text surrounding it.
A page of well-written dialogue isn’t exactly what you might hear from the back of the van while you’re carpooling—but it’s close enough that any good spy could decode it.
All freshmen at my college had to wear beanies at the start of school. Besides the obvious fashion quandary, the problem was that students from the town’s rival college gloried in stealing beanies. And I knew if any of my upper classmates caught me sans beanie, they had the power to make me stand on a table in the cafeteria and sing my high school fight song. It was a time of great personal trepidation.
Then one day a nice young man stopped and talked to me on campus. Look at this, I thought to myself. I am in college talking to a nice college boy. College is great! And then that nice college boy grabbed my beanie and ran. Turns out he was a Montague. I was a Capulet. Our romance was tragically short-lived, but unlike Juliet, I somehow survived.
Many years after that, while putting my college education to good use as a publishing employee, I wandered down to the company’s second floor. A guy I didn’t know was visiting; we made polite introductions, he got a funny look on his face when I said my name—and he then confessed that he was the beanie-stealing Montague (my name was helpfully printed on my beanie’s nametag and he’d clearly never forgotten it). He left, I moved on. The beanie did not haunt me. I never thought about the beanie at all.
But several years again after that, once I was published and had become easily “google-able,” I got an email out of the blue. From the Montague. He reminded me of our previous encounters and told me he still had the beanie, but would like to send it back to me. And despite my protestations that the beanie no longer played any part in my emotional health, it arrived in my mailbox a few days later.
In a follow-up email, the Montague also told me that his oldest daughter was now a freshman in college. I made an intuitive leap: Was his move to make amends partially motivated by fear that he or his daughter might be run over by the karma bus? My beanie was no more than a bump in the road for me, but I speculated that returning it to me twenty-six years later was the outward signal of a self-transformation for the Montague.
The characters who move us as readers are those who have gone through some kind of relatable transformation. Experiencing that transformation is the thing that sticks to readers like emotional superglue; it keeps them mulling over certain stories for weeks. But new writers sometimes forget this critical element. Challenge your writing students to track exactly how their main characters have changed from the beginnings to the endings of their stories. If it’s not obvious, they need to spend some time revising.
Get them to focus on their character emotional arcs and you just might make Shakespeares out of them yet!