My first job after college was at a public television station in New Orleans. I had no experience, so I wrote a letter to the station manager and said I was willing to do anything. Anything
. I got what was generally considered the worst job in the shop: transcribing interviews. This meant when a producer went out in the field to do an interview, he or she would bring the tapes back to me and I would sit with headphones and a typewriter (yes, a typewriter
) and transcribe every single word.
Sounds boring? It was. But it was helpful, too. For one thing, I learned how to type really fast, which is a useful skill for any aspiring writer.
I also learned how to listen. I was surprised to hear how often people don’t answer the questions they’re asked. This was confirmed later when I began reporting for PEOPLE magazine. People often dance around difficult questions. We—because I include myself here—avoid uncomfortable truths and try to turn conversations in other directions. But in the process, we often step right in it and reveal the very thing we’re trying to hide.
From my hours spent transcribing interviews, I learned that a conversation between two people can be powerful and dramatic, especially when there’s an underlying tension between the people talking.
So here’s a trick to use when starting a piece of fiction writing: Transcribe a conversation between two or more characters. It doesn’t have to be a fight, but the conversation should reflect a conflict, either clearly defined or mysteriously vague. Maybe the characters are talking about one thing, but they’re really
talking about something else.
This is how I kicked off my new book, HOMESICK:
MOM (yelling): What in God’s name are you doing?
DAD: Shh. You’ll wake up Benny.
MOM: No, I won’t. He’s sound asleep.
[ME: Wrong. I was wide awake and listening from my room like I always did when my mom and dad fought. It was the soundtrack of my childhood.]
DAD: Let me just unload the truck.
MOM: I told you to clean up your crap, and now you’re bringing home more crap?
There’s more to this conversation, but do you see how the characters are really talking about their relationship? Does the fact that the narrator is listening from the safety of his bedroom tell us something about him? Even the mother’s use of the word “crap”—a word I don’t typically use—reveals something about the family dynamic.
Try using the transcript writing exercise with your students and see if this trick works for you. Getting rid of all those he saids
and she saids
might help them discover who their characters are and what their conflict is. It’s also a great way to jump right into the heat of a story.
When they revise, your students will probably want to put the dialogue in paragraph form, but maybe not. I ended up liking the transcript format so much, I used it in my book.
I hope that practicing writing transcripts will help your students land their first jobs. They probably don’t want to be transcriptionists, though. But if they can learn to hear what people are saying between the lines, and then weave a story out of those truths and lies and hopes and fears, they just might be the kind of writers whose books we want to read. Kate Klise is the author of 23 books, including DYING TO MEET YOU, GROUNDED, and HOMESICK. For more information, visit www.kateklise.com.
© 2012 Kate Klise. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.