Reading Like a Writer, Continued; The Dialogue 

Over the week, I’ve been going over this idea I had about what I notice in other people’s writings, what I skim over unless I make an effort to pay attention, and what I’m automatically drawn to reading.

As I started to review some of the books that I’ve read over the years, there’s a couple of items that I tend to skim over, such as extended descriptions of movements, like the setup of a battle or a location, and the physical description of some characters if they are extended. The one thing that always catches my interest, however, the thing that always inspires me as a writer, is dialogue.

The minute I start reading about people verbally interacting with each other, it starts to spark my imagination. This interplay between people tells me about who they are, how they relate to others, and the world they live in. Reading dialogue in a story immediately tells me whether the characters are going to be people I want to get to know.

As you might figure, I immediately find myself attracted to writers who do well with dialogue. Doug Adams and Stephen King did pretty well at the art of having their characters speak. I also remember reading On Writing by King and him saying that some guys had talent writing dialogue (Elmore Leonard) and some didn’t (Lovecraft). I mean, read this:

‘You wear your shades at night,’ Chili said, ‘so I’ll think you’re cool, but I can’t tell if you’re looking at me.’
Raji put his glasses down on his nose, down and up. ‘See? I’m looking the fuck right at you, man. You have something to say to me fuckin say it so we be done here.’

  • Be Cool, Elmore Leonard

I’ve also come to be impressed with Cormac McCarthy’s dialogue, as well.

As I wrote different works of fiction, I was surprised that one of the positives that people pointed out about my writing was how I handled dialogue. Now, however, maybe it might not be much of a surprise.

Do I read like a writer?

As I’ve begun to revive my interest in fiction writing, one of the things that I have begun to analyze more closely is how I read other people’s writing, specifically fiction.

This might sound weird at first. “What does how I read have to do with how I write?” Our boy Stevie King always said that the only way that you could be a good writer was to read a lot and write a lot. But how does the way that you read affect how you write? I’ll try to explain this concept as I understand it, or at least how I would define it.

In the photo I included with this post is a book by Jeff Shaara, one of the writers I got interested in several years back. I’d seen the film Gettysburg on TV, then decided to check out his dad Michael Shaara’s book that the film was based on, The Killer Angels. From there, I learned his son was writing a ton of historical fiction books, and I’ve been reading them ever since. Jeff Shaara does historical fiction, almost all of them based on past American wars. It’s a topic I’ve long been interested in, so I was all over those books.

It was just a year or so ago, however, as I started to analyze how I write and put together scenes, that I started examining the writings of other people. I realized how much I skimmed over scenes when I read because the level of detail just bogged me down. Shaara is a pretty good example of that.

What I am trying to do is be more of a writing reader, analyzing how my favorite authors take care of scenes and see if I can incorporate some of those skills in my own work. Although, it has also made me see that maybe I write the way I do because that’s what I prefer in storytelling. If I don’t like to read through massive, overly detailed descriptions, maybe that’s just not my style as a writer.

On a related note, I took one of those “What type of writer are you?” quizzes where you input your writing and they described what writer you most resemble. I took it twice; the first time, it told me I resembled Arthur C. Clarke, and the other time it said I wrote like Agatha Christie. Guess I’ll have to strategically read a few of their books over again…