Thursday, July 22, 2010

Writing Dialogue

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!


Vicki Rocho said...

Great tips! I like the hand-writing one. I find things come out differently when I write long hand than when I use the computer. Not better or worse necessarily, just different. Great way to get things moving again.

Unknown said...

This is a great article! I'm working on a dialogue-only piece right now (just for fun/stretch those writer's muscles), so this comes at a perfect time for me. I love the tip about handwriting the dialogue. This makes perfect sense, and I'm going to give it a try today. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Diane.

I always read dialogue aloud. It's the only way actually to hear what it sounds like. You really can't do it all in your least not well.

Another big, and too common, problem that you hinted at is when all the characters sound the same. There should be enough unique dialogue clues to identify the main characters even if you don't include an attribution. If the dialogue can be swapped between characters without changes, you need to work on it some more.

Anyway, keep up the good work!

Walt Shiel

Anonymous said...

Oh, and one other thing I was going to mention. You can solve the issue of automatic spellchecking interfering with your writing by just turning off that feature. Actually, I leave mine turned off all the time and just run it when I'm done.

Will Burke said...

These are all great ideas! For my first draft, I'm not using contractions for the Aristocrats to seperate them from the Rural characters, but I'll need to go deeper as I go on.

Natasha said...

What a fantastic post!

My stories are rich in dialogue, and most of them are handwritten- maybe there is a connect.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks, I really needed those tips. Sometimes I struggle with dialogue.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

A skill with writing dialogue can overcome many other writing weaknesses! But if the dialogue is weak, there's not much that can compensate!

Tamara Narayan said...

Great post! I'm in the research phrase of a book taking place in the 1850's and dialogue is going to be one of the most challenging aspects. I started reading Uncle Tom's Cabin to get a feel for how people may have spoken, but I won't be duplicating it because it's too hard to read. Somewhere between authenticity and readability there must exist a happy medium. I just hope I can find it!

Another little tidbit: In my current wip, I had a character slurring her words after a night of Ambien plus booze. I used a lot of apostrophes to shorten her words (i.e. tol' for told). A reading group pal advised me to cut way back on that because each of those apostrophes was making him pause to figure out the word. In other words, a little flavor/slang can go a long way.

Anonymous said...

1- Remember that most people do not speak proper English - I have events and characters from southern California and Boston, so I needed to weave n nuances and attitudes into their respective dialogues. Great post.

1- Remember that most people do not speak proper English.


I'm toying on the idea of doing another poetry book, I have such alot un pulished, so thanks for all the tips much appreciated,


Riv Re said...

I'm in middle of writing an idea (I don't call it a story as I have no plot, just an idea) that takes place in present times. The main character is my own age, and I find the dialog fun and easy to write. It flows better than when I'm working on my novel that demands formal speech.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Very concise and understandable post. I have bookmarked it for reference.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

This is so useful, Diane. Your visitors might want to know one of the books I recommend to my UCLA Extension Writers' Program students. It is Tom Chiarella's "Writing Dialogue" published by Writer's Digest.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
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