A few weeks ago I posted a review of the Australian Writers’ Centre podcast, So you want to be a writer, hosted by Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo. At that point I’d listened to over half the back catalogue and was well and truly won over. I recently made it all the way back to episode one. I’m all caught up, and now have to wait for new episodes every week.
What would I do during my commute if I wasn’t listening to Al and Val talk about writing? How could I maintain that bubbling enthusiasm their regular chats stirred in the literary corners of my soul? I figured I’d start listening to other podcasts about writing.
Which was when I discovered something interesting. Not all podcasts are created equal.
I’ve listened to quite a few different podcast now, all with variations on the same theme. The presenters have similar goals. They cover similar topics. They interview similar guests. And some of them have been great. But none of them have hooked me the way So you want to be a writer did.
After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that a podcast needs three essential ingredients to be truly outstanding.
(I know this may not seem to be about writing at first glance, but trust me — I’ll get there.)
Before anything else, the podcast needs to be interesting and informative. At the end of an episode I should feel as though I’ve learned something, or at the very least had my knowledge updated and refreshed.
This one took me a while to tease out. From very early on, Valerie and Allison adopted a structure to their podcast. Their delivery is fluid, drifting naturally from topic to topic, so the structure isn’t rigid or burdensome.
But each episode has a brief review of a writing craft book and an app or web pick of week. There’s a round up of news from the blogosphere and any insider gossip from the publishing world. And of course a working writer’s tip in response to questions sent in by listeners, and an interview with that week’s writer in residence.
The segments are interspersed with banter, but the underlying structure is sound. It provides a scaffolding that supports and guides the conversation. In comparison, many of the other podcasts I’ve been listening to can come across as aimless or scattered — even when the topics of conversation are interesting and the guests interviewed are knowledgable.
The final ingredient was the hardest to pin down. The thing that makes So you want to be a writer such a joy to listen to is the chemistry between Valerie and Allison. Their individual characters shine through in their interactions. Conversations between the pair are punctuated with laughter, and I find myself laughing along — I can’t help it.
I call it chemistry, but it’s more like alchemy. You combine different elements and something magical happens. It goes beyond the rapport the women obviously share, beyond the lively discussions and gentle teasing. Their personalities and passions complement each other. This ingredient is what makes the AWC podcast stand out among its peers.
What does this mean for writers?
Obviously the podcast is packed with writery goodness. Tips and tricks and advice galore. But I believe writers can learn from the nature of the podcast itself, particularly when it comes to writing dialogue.
If you’ve ever written clunky dialogue, or long meandering monologues, or dense slabs of exposition delivered by motionless talking heads, rest easy. You are not alone. We’ve all done it. So how do we go from cringeworthy dialogue to something that’s as enjoyable to read as the AWC podcast is to listen to?
It comes back to the three ingredients.
First, think about the information your dialogue needs to convey. What is its purpose in your story? Every line should advance the plot or reveal character. Preferably both at once.
Next comes structure. If you have a big reveal that needs to come out in dialogue (see what I mean about advancing plot?), give some thought to how you set out that conversation. What foundation can you lay in the dialogue to make the reveal as dramatic as possible? Do you need set up for a punch line? Or a misunderstanding to make the reveal more surprising? The impact of your revelation will be determined by the structure of the preceding conversation.
Last, sprinkle in some chemistry. Luckily, we don’t need to chance on a twenty-something year friendship to make our dialogue sparkle. We get to choose the traits of our characters when we invent them. Choose characters whose personalities balance one another so their dialogue has a natural bounce to it. This is even more important if the characters are in opposition. Let their dialogue crackle with tension built from personality differences as much as situational ones.
If there is a final lesson here it’s that life around you teems with opportunities to hone your writing craft if you’re paying attention. So pay attention!