Monday, March 17, 2014

Observing & Writing Dialog With Tracy Shawn

Tracy Shawn

One of the elements of Twitter that I find endlessly fascinating is how much we manage to convey of ourselves within the succinct and compact format of 140 characters or less. I met Tracy Shawn on Twitter and from our first conversation, I was struck by the sense of hard-earned wisdom and quiet kindness that Tracy exudes through her digital presence. I hope you will enjoy Tracy’s insights as much as I have.

Tracy Shawn lives and writes on the Central Coast of California. Her educational background includes a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Her debut novel, The Grace of Crows, is about how an anxiety-ridden woman finds happiness through the most unexpected of ways—and characters. Praised as a “stunning debut novel” by top 50 Hall of Fame reviewer, Grady Harp, The Grace of Crows has also been hailed as a “deeply moving heroine’s journey” by award-winning author Janet Lucy. 

First, please tell us a bit about what you write and why dialog is important in your work.

The genre of my debut novel, The Grace of Crows, is women’s fiction. It’s a story about how an anxiety-ridden woman finds happiness through the most unexpected of ways—and characters.
The importance of dialog in my work is that I not only use it to move the story ahead, but to also paint a deeper picture of what is behind a character’s motives, personality, and even history.

Listening is an integral piece of "people watching". Do you "people listen" automatically, or do you make a deliberate effort?

That’s a good question. I actually do both. I have a master’s in clinical psychology and the schooling really helped hone my listening skills. During grad school and through my internships, I was taught to listen to beyond what was being said and pick up cues such as tone, body language, and facial expressions.

Humans exchange a lot of information paraverbally, that is, through intonation, pacing/rhythm, volume, and enunciation. What paraverbal cues are you most sensitive or tuned into as an author, an observer, and a participant?

Interestingly, I’m very observant to what is not being said. So many people are great at avoiding what they don’t want to acknowledge or confront. In fact I know someone who has a very difficult time acknowledging what others are going through. If anyone dares to share something with her, she acts as if she doesn’t hear and goes right into how hard her life is. After observing this pattern for many years, I realize that she’s somehow wired her brain not to hear other people’s hardships. It’s very interesting and I used to get annoyed by it, but now I work things like that into my writing. It’s great to be able to use stuff like this!

Do you enjoy writing dialog? Is there anything about writing dialog that you find challenging?

I love writing dialog. One of my first writing teachers, Duane Unkefer, taught me that dialog is actually a form of action. After taking that in, I saw that dialog helps pump energy into a story and I consciously write with that goal in mind.
The most challenging part of writing dialog for me is making sure that each of my characters sounds different from one another. It’s easy to create distinct voices between men and women, the young and not-so-young, and people of different cultures.  Yet, two close friends, who aren’t only peers, but spend a lot of time together, naturally start to sound alike in real life. It can be challenging to make sure there’s that realism in the story, yet also make sure that there’s a different “flavoring” in dialog between the two personalities.

What have you learned about yourself and your relationships by observing real life & fictional dialog?

Referring back to what I said before about how often people skirt around questions in both real life and fictional dialog, I realize that although it’s usually a poor form of communication, it can actually help decrease tension as well as possible arguments. I believe that’s one of the more positive reasons that people have developed this “skill!”

Do you have any characters with catchphrases or verbal habits? What are they? How do these personal quirks add depth to your characters?

In The Grace of Crows, I made the husband sometimes interrupt the protagonist, Saylor, because I wanted to show that he didn’t really want to hear what she was saying. I also made sure that Saylor’s best friend, Lucy’s, speech pattern was more sharp-sounding than Saylor’s, since Lucy was a more “snappy” kind of character. I also had Saylor say that she was sorry too often to show the regret and shame of anxiety.

Please share with us a dialog gem that you've recently overheard or participated in. What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

Just today, I was chatting to some gym buddies, and when I asked how they were doing, one of them said, “Just excellent,” while the other one shook his head, grinning and said, “Terrible, simply terrible.” I bet you can guess which one loves cheese and has a wicked sense of humor and which one is the lean vegetarian and has an infectious optimism.

Please share with us a dialog gem from your own writing. (If published, please share the title & link to purchase site.) What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

This is a scene from The Grace of Crows ( or It takes place in a coffee shop, where the protagonist, Saylor, meets a man named Lenny. What I like about this dialog is that it shows the magic of how we can sometimes engage in meaningful, life-changing conversations with chance-met strangers.

“They are survivors, aren’t they?” Saylor found herself whispering.
“That’s what I mean.” Lenny tipped back the rest of his tea. “They are survivors. But not only that, they have grace.”
“Grace?” I’ve never heard the word grace attributed to crows.” Saylor thought how grace was one of those words that actually sounded just like the attributes it was meant to convey: ease and beauty, thankfulness and blessing.
“The grace of crows is the kind of grace that’s straightforward and honest,” Lenny said, the low bass of his voice reverent-sounding. “It’s not the dainty, phony stuff that so many people think makes them look good. It’s the steadfast strength to carry on.”
“The steadfast strength to carry on,” Saylor repeated. “You’re right, Lenny; that is grace, isn’t it?”

Is there anything else about observing and writing dialog that you’d like to add?

Sometimes it helps to act out a scene, as if you’re an actor playing a role. My cats are so used to me doing this that they simply yawn when they watch me speak the “lines” of one character, and then physically move across my living room to answer as the next character in a completely different voice! Doing this not only helps me to tighten dialog, but it can also help me to use the right body language and gestures within my dialog.

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Follow me on twitter @TracyShawn