Dialogue is a vital element in most any story. The verbal interaction of the characters reveals much about each person – past events, feelings, beliefs, intentions, etc. Since we cannot hear the characters speaking, we rely on printed dialogue for clues regarding intelligence, education level, and physical location. As we can see, authors must convey a tremendous amount of information with the spoken word!
Since writing dialogue can be a struggle, here’s a few tips to keep our character exchanges fresh:
1- Remember that most people do not speak proper English. (Or any language.) What we were taught in school might transfer well onto paper, but we don’t always employ those rules in our speech. Proper grammar states “Turn on the light,” but most people tend to say, “Turn the light on,” instead. We overuse words. Our participles dangle. We use past and present tense in the same sentence – sometimes twice!
If our character is a college professor or a man of higher learning, he will likely use proper grammar. However, the average person will be more lax with his verbal skill. Realize that it’s all right to let some rules fall by the wayside when writing dialogue. We are trying to relate to our readers, not impress our English teachers. Allow dialogue to flow freely and naturally.
2- Research the time period of the story for proper usage of words. Our languages changes almost as rapidly as technology, and those advances bring a whole slew of new words. Ten years ago, people did not use the word ‘texting,’ and twenty years ago, most did not even possess a cell phone.
It goes beyond breakthroughs in science, though. Slang words have evolved over time, and where and how often they were used has changed. Our spoken language has become more relaxed and many subjects no longer taboo. If our dialogue is to sound authentic, we must research the time period. Watch a movie or read a book that was created during that specific moment in time. Avoid current books and movies based on past decades, as they will not provide an accurate representation. If our story is set in the far past, we may have to conduct some creative research! However, the resulting dialogue will sound far more authentic and immerse our readers into the story.
3- Hand write all dialogue. Occasionally, the computer screen sabotages our creative efforts. As we type our thoughts, Mr. Spellcheck goes to work highlighting our mistakes. This can either distract us as we backspace to fix errors or inhibit us as we type slower to avoid such blunders. Either way, our creative flow is disrupted and realistic dialogue becomes more challenging.
By hand-writing scenes with extensive dialogue, we’ll find our words flow more freely. The pressure to write with perfection is eliminated, opening the door for more natural exchanges.
4- Speak the dialogue out loud and record the conversation. This is perhaps the most effective means by which to capture natural dialogue! Written lines can sound stiff and impersonal, but when we say those words aloud, the natural ebb and flow of conversation becomes apparent. It reveals awkward and unnecessary phrases. And the more we exhibit that character’s personality, the better we will hear how that person speaks in real life.
If this is a challenge to do solo, entice a friend or family member to help. A basic written outline of the dialogue can be used to guide the overall conversation. Allow that person the freedom to change the wording as he sees fit and bounce naturally off one another’s responses. An even more effective trick would be to video tape the entire scene to capture gentle nuances and gestures as well.
Good dialogue is essential if we are to connect with our readers. We must communicate our character’s voices clearly, accurately, and in a believable manner. Otherwise, we may find our readers offering a few choice words instead!