Monday, February 16, 2009

Feel the Rhythm

I can attest that anyone, even those without musical talent, can master a musical instrument. At one time, I could play the trumpet remarkably well. No matter how hard I tried, however, I was never going to be great. I was good (for my age), but no amount of practicing would make me great.

Amidst cooking dinner and chasing after Son #2 last night, I tried reading more of Linda Seger’s book on creating characters. One thing she said that struck me was that writers must “feel the rhythm.” Ms. Seger referred to dialogue. She believes great dialogue writing is innate, but that good dialogue writing can be acquired.

Trumpet players learn the keys for each note, how to breath, etc. Like with playing the trumpet, the secret to being a decent author is to know dialogue writing’s proper techniques. Ms. Seger instructs writers to remove all fluff, limit each character to two or at most three sentences, and utilize conflict.

Ms. Seger hasn’t yet said anything about how to hone those techniques she mentions, but I already know the secret to becoming better. I recall the answer from my trumpet playing days. Those of us who don’t readily “feel the rhythm” have to practice and practice and practice.


  1. Just in case anyone cares (or not), I'd like to give a shout out to President's Day! I'm off work - yay!!

  2. And practice makes perfect! I'll keep practicing forever!
    Happy President's Day!

  3. Practice makes perfect I hope because I'm not a natural when it comes to great dialogue.

  4. Happy President's Day to you, too, PJ. Alas, it hasn't quite panned out as expected. LW and #2 son have both been sick today.

    Forever is one long practice. We're always closer but never quite there.

  5. Hi David, what you said about being a natural or not made me think about reading. Being well read helps improve dialogue, too. Or, more precisely, these days studying other author's writing helps me improve dialogue.

  6. I've played the drums for around 14 years, and I teach them to students on a weekly basis, so I can attest to the point you're making here. Some people have rhythm and some people just don't. But that doesn't mean they can't become decent drummers. It's much harder for them, but if they want it enough and are willing to put in the time, anything's possible.

    I think writing is very similar to music in that some people just have that certain knack for it. They know how to transition, they know how to make characters speak, they know how to describe a forest or a supermarket or a zoo without seeming like they're trying. But others struggle with it and have to put more effort into learning the craft before they can make a story sing.

    I do, however, think that regardless of innate ability, every writer can always improve. Dialogue is certainly tricky, but I seem to have the best luck when I just get quiet and really listen to the exchange in my head, which can be difficult because I have the attention span of a field mouse.

  7. Great comment, Mitch. You said my thoughts exactly! And, I agree with you about listening to the thoughts in your head (to the rest of you -- no, that doesn't mean we're crazy).