Friday, July 27, 2007

Learning to Write Better Dialogue by Observation

Some time back in the early 1980s, I recall science fiction author Larry Niven saying that he learned a lot about writing dialogue from reading Robert A. Heinlein's novels. That got my attention, and I pulled out copies of Niven's Ringworld and Heinlein's Starship Troopers and started comparing dialogue in scenes, side-by-side.

I learned a lot about dialogue from those observations. Dialogue techniques that I had missed in the past stood out clearly when I saw how Niven had borrowed or learned them from Heinlein. (Simple things like putting a short statement in its own paragraph for emphasis, plus many more subtle and complex techniques.)

I found the same when I paired these short-story collections: Niven's The Magic Goes Away with The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein. Actually, any Niven/Heinlein combination will do.

Try it yourself. If you're not a science fiction reader, compare other writers' techniques. For example, contrast the dialogue techniques in A Painted House, by John Grisham, with those in Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith. Better still, contrast Jane Smiley's dialogue in A Thousand Acres with Grisham's in A Painted House or the autobiographical The Coalwood Way, by Homer Hickam.

I guarantee that you'll learn more than you expected.
--Michael A. Banks
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

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