softening up wooden dialogue.

| Friday, May 20, 2011
Today's Tune: Heartbeat and Sails

So, dialogue.

Some writers are gifted with an natural ear for snappy dialogue that doesn't weigh down the narrative. Lucky them. Unfortunately, many of us have to work at it for a while before we develop that ear. In the meantime, we end up with stilted, boring, overdone, or unbelievable dialogue. I used to write terrible dialogue. Just awful. I've improved a lot, thank goodness.

How do we find that natural "spoken" voice for our characters that doesn't sound totally scripted? Here are a few things I've learned over the years.

- People don't usually call each other by name several times in a conversation. Many newer writers feel the need to have their characters address each other repeatedly by name in casual conversation. Real people don't do this, especially not with people they're familiar with. They know each other's name. Listen to the way you speak to your spouse, your children, your friends. You call them by name when trying to get their attention, when you're angry with them, when you're introducing them, or to emphasize a point. When you're the only people speaking, you don't say, "Wow, Tom! Wasn't that game amazing?" "Totally, Sarah. I couldn't believe the score was so close."

- Differentiate between your characters' voices. Not literally -- you don't have to specify what each character's voice sounds like. However, they should all speak a little differently, based on their background and personality. We all have certain words or special turns of phrase that pepper our speech. We have regional accents and terms. One great tip I heard a long time ago: your reader should be able to tell who's speaking without seeing a name attached to the dialogue.

- Writing historical speech patterns does not always mean elevated terms and getting rid of contractions. I'm not sure what it is about writing out contractions that a lot of people seem to feel goes hand-in-hand with the speech patterns of yesteryear. There's also a lot of terminology that people think someone from the Victorian era would have used, but it actually ends up sounding wooden and scripted. Depending on the time period, many people actually spoke similarly to how we speak today. Minus our modern-day slang and terminology, of course.

- Be aware of the region your character hails from. British English is different from American English which is different from Australian English. New English speakers may have a different pattern to their speech because they're used to their native language (different pattern as in they place words differently; I'm not referring to accent). If you have a character from an area you're not familiar with, brush up on the local slang and phrasing, but don't go crazy. Nothing's worse than an (unintentionally) overblown caricature. 'Allo, Govnah!

- Don't use dialogue to convey information a character already knows. You see this tip everywhere. Character dialogue isn't intended to be a tool to talk to the reader, it's meant to talk to other characters. So avoid stuff like, "You know that last time we were here Old Man Rutherford chased us off with a shotgun" or "It's Monday, which means we have Debate Team after school."

- Leave out the boring stuff. Easier said than done. What's boring? Lots of "um" and "like, totally" and general filler. Meaningless side-conversations that don't serve the story. Your dialogue should have a purpose, whether it's to establish personality, give information, or enhance the plot. Don't ramble unless you have a point.

- No drastic changes. Sometimes we change the way we speak when we're in different environments or around different people. You don't swear around small children, you adopt a more professional tone for work, etc. Characters can reflect this. However, there shouldn't be an unexplainable change in your character's "voice." They shouldn't be completely swear-free for the first half of the book and then start swearing like a sailor halfway through unless there's a good reason.

- If you're writing kids, let them sound like kids. I don't mean turning them into slang machines. Like, totally, for sure. One: because you will probably mess up the slang and it will be embarrassing. Two: it is goofy-boring filler. What I mean is to keep in mind that they're not adults. That doesn't mean you have to dumb down their speech, but they shouldn't be speaking like a 26-year old graduate student. No matter how smart and precocious they are.

- Watch out for long blocks of speech. It's not often that someone resorts to a monologue unless they're giving a speech or lecture. Even someone telling a story is often interrupted by gasps or laughs or questions. If your character is going to launch into long, uninterrupted block of dialogue, it better be good.

- Think about what you're writing. Would a real person actually say this? I was recently watching Bleach and there were a few lines so awkwardly scripted that I laughed. Something like, "I'm going to be the one that kicks your ass now." Granted, Bleach is anime and there were probably some translation issues (I watch the dubbed version), but man, how awkward. Seriously, read your dialogue aloud. Is it something you could really, honestly hear a person saying? If you're stumbling over it or it rolls off the tongue weird, work on it.

- Practice. Ultimately there's no easy solution to writing good dialogue. You just have to practice. Listen to real conversations. Try and distill dialogue down to something bigger than life, but still believable. Make it count.

What do you think makes good dialogue, reader pals?


{ LV Cabbie } at: May 20, 2011 at 10:09 AM said...

I have a semi-problem with your suggestion not to use contractions.

If a person's native tongue doesn't have contractions and you're having them speak, even if it's in English, could you expect them to use something they wouldn't normally use?

Kinda convoluted, hey?

My historical novel takes place in 18th century California and all but one of the characters is Spanish or Mexican Indian speaking Spanish. Would it make sense to have their dialogue use contractions? I don't think so.

[notice how many I used!!!]

{ thebloodfiend } at: May 20, 2011 at 10:20 AM said...

Thankfully, I've been told that I have an ear for dialog. But this is still pretty useful.

And yes, some of those anime dubs/subs are horrible. Sometimes, when I watch something by Mikato Shinkai, I wonder who translated all this purple prose and thought it sounded lyrical. It's terrible.

{ Chantele Sedgwick } at: May 20, 2011 at 10:38 AM said...

I love writing dialogue. It's one of my strengths I think. I have a harder time with setting. lol
Great post! Nice to meet you!

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 20, 2011 at 10:51 AM said...

@LV - Of course it's important to take a speaker's native tongue into account, which is why I mentioned keeping in mind the region they hail from :) These are of course not blanket statements, since there's always a little wiggle room. Generally speaking, I'm referring to English speakers. Saying, "It is most certainly correct, and I do think you are impossible," sounds pretty stilted. "It's most certainly correct. You're impossible," sounds much more natural, even for a time-period setting.

@thebloodfied - LUCKY. Seriously.

@Chantele - Awesome. Thanks for stopping by!

{ Jenna Cooper } at: May 20, 2011 at 2:12 PM said...

Great things to keep in mind! Dialogue is my favorite thing to write.

{ Old Kitty } at: May 20, 2011 at 2:25 PM said...

Yay!! I love dialogue!! But I wish I could be adventurous and be able to capture a dialect!! That's some skill I'm yet to learn - for now I stick to these wonderful steps you've elaborated here! Take care

{ Margo Lerwill } at: May 20, 2011 at 5:16 PM said...

I still tend to do the first (having the characters use one another's names) if the characters are having an argument. Of course, not every sentence! Mostly just the lines that the characters would obviously like to begin with, "Look, you f-ing idiot-"

{ Andrew Leon } at: May 20, 2011 at 5:49 PM said...

Speaking of slang...
There was an interesting thing about the show Deadwood; it's full of cursing. I mean, really full. Modern cursing. They actually made that as a decision, though, after originally writing it with period appropriate cursing. But they felt that the audience wouldn't understand that language as cursing, because that language is no longer considered cursing (unfortunately, I can't think of any examples, at the moment). I suppose the point is that although you need to keep language (dialogue) period appropriate, you also need to tailor it to deliver the message you want your modern reader to understand.

{ Read my books; lose ten pounds! } at: May 20, 2011 at 8:02 PM said...

interesting, thankyou.

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