How I Learned to Create Realistic Dialogue

This post was used by permission of author T. Davis Bunn and originally published on his blog as “Readers Ask: What was the most valuable advice you received as an unpublished writer” on March 12, 2013.

I finished seven books before my first was accepted for publication. I made my first presentation to a New York agent with the third novel. She thoroughly disliked everything about my work. Her letter was one page long, and was perhaps the most painful set of words I have ever been forced to confront.

The most telling of her criticisms was, “your characters are one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs and your dialogue is flat.”

The worst thing about her comments was, I knew she was right.

I ditched novel four, which by then was almost completed. And I knew it was basically just more of the same. I then spent three weeks trying to decide whether to ditch the writing gig entirely. Remember, I was running a consulting group and struggling every day to make time for the writing. And after three and a half years, this was the result?  My family wanted me to quit, I was exhausted most of the time, I hadn’t been on a date in over a year. This was a life?

But there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life. That was the only answer I had. Everything else paled in comparison to the thirst, the desperate longing to write, and the compelling agonizing joy that came from meeting the empty page.

If I was going to continue, I had to change. I had to improve. I had to break out of this rut and grow. But how?  I was living in Germany. I had no contact with any writers’ group. The books on writing that I studied didn’t say much about how to survive a savaging from a NY agent. So I improvised.

I began taking a pocket recorder into every contact with other people outside of business. Coffee with friends, dinners, family, sports, everything. For a month I recorded everything I heard, then went home and wrote it all out. The exercise defined boring. I truly loathed the experience.

But by the end of that month, I owned those people. I could take a kindly grandmother and turn her into an assassin, and make it work, because I had her individual traits and the revelations she made in her conversation, mostly unconscious.

From there I began working on point of view from the standpoint of revealing both the viewer and the outside world, something I identified in the writers I most admired. Little one-paragraph sketches developed into longer pieces, as the characters began to take on tasks. Action and tension became real because they were developed from the inside out.

Four weeks into this grueling exercise, I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream where I heard an old man’s voice telling me a story. I got up and wrote it out, four and a half single-spaced pages. Nothing but dialogue. Two men and one woman. The story still holds me. When I finished, just before dawn, I knew I could leave that exercise behind. The lesson was not learned. It was mine.

Space-break for a fast forward ten years:  My breakout novel The Great Divide was released by Doubleday.

The NY Post had this to say:  “Bunn’s excellent characters reveal a strong good-vs-evil story. His dialogue is racehorse fast. That’s some feat.”

I agree.

Have you ever felt like giving up on your writing? What compelled you to continue?

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