My friend has written three books. His dialogue sounds interesting. There’s plenty of it. But only three people speak, and all three sound as if they’re speaking from the same lips.
Many of their sentences are long, it sounds as if their dialogue is written instead of spoken, there’s little difference in wording among the three. Bottom line, my friend’s dialogue doesn’t sound real or natural.
In “How to Write Natural and Authentic Dialogue Between Characters,” WriteOn, a columnist whom Service Scape doesn’t identify by name, wrote, “Good dialogue can make or break your story… If your dialogue is engaging, you can really bring your characters to life inside readers’ minds.”
Stories depend on the willing suspension of disbelief. Friends and Harry Potter and Cinderella aren’t real, but readers love the characters because the dialogue felt real. If your dialogue feels forced or unreal, readers will lose interest in your story.
In Greek, dia means through; logos means word. Dialogue is the glue that holds characters together. Imagine, for a moment, your manuscript with no dialogue. That’s how important dialogue is to a book.
Dialogue reveals conflict, story and personal information. If it doesn’t work, cut it or change it.
In To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, the hero hitchhiked from Oklahoma to Florida in 1967 to find his father. In part, Florida Writers Association judges gave my novel an historical fiction prize because the dialogue seemed real between the hero and the people he met: a Cajun trucker, an elderly couple, a child molester and a VW Microbus full of hippies. They talked about ‘60s music, pop psychology, and fatherlessness, and their conversation sounded as if you and I were chatting.
I have an ear for dialogue, but it wasn’t easy to write more than 300 pages of dialogue mixed with exposition – the parts of the book where the author is speaking.
As WriteOn pointed out, dialogue writers must know their characters intimately. Those secondary characters think, speak, and feel. They use words that the author, the narrator nor the hero would never use in conversation. For instance, the Cajun truck driver, Gil LeBeouf, called the hero “boo” and “cher.”
CUTIE: What does boo mean? And share?”
GIL: “Boo and cher be like kid and dear. Bout de same ting. I call my kids and my wife and my brudder all de same.”
CUTIE: “You studied French?”
GIL: “Cajuns grow up wid French.”
CUTIE: (thinking) A bilingual truck driver? Who woulda thunk it?
I spent five years in Louisiana, but if you don’t fully know your characters’ speech patterns, find someone who does. Don’t fake it; don’t steal a snatch of dialogue from Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show. Get one phrase wrong, and readers who know the difference will lose confidence in your writing.
Give each character’s voice a different speech pattern. A fifty-year-old Arizona couple speaks differently than a 15-year-old Okie who grew up in the 1960s.
Keep your characters’ voices consistent throughout the story by checking during your editing phase. Read the hero’s dialogue all the way from Chapter 1 to The End. Not the exposition, not the other characters, just listen the hero speak. Now do that for each character. Put in the work.
Listen to the words
Listen to people at the grocery store, in restaurants, on the radio. When you hear a phrase you like, repeat their words aloud. Write down unusual words and phrases. Note that when as Carson the butler says any word starting with “con,” he emphasizes the first syllable. Listen to him speak these words on Downton Abbey. “CONcealed.” “CONcede.” “CONceivable.” Notice that like many Britishers who speak with a formal tone, Carson pronounces his words more slowly than do Cockneys or Scots or Americans. Each syllable comes separately from his lips. Say the word “CONceivable,” out loud, and enunciate each of the four syllables.
As you listen to a person, consider whether you want to assign his speaking style to a character in your manuscript, WriteOn suggested.
The android Data has not mastered contractions, and therefore never says “don’t” or “can’t.” That was a conscious decision by the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not using contractions is a mistake that occurs when writers don’t listen.
“One of the dialogue mistakes I see most frequently as an editor is not using contractions in dialogue,” WriteOn wrote. “People speak informally, especially to their friends and loved ones, so most people use contractions instead of the formal version of the words. Not using contractions is one of the easiest ways to make your dialogue sound stilted and forced.”
Avoid dialogue tags
I was a newspaper reporter and editor for 35 years, so I was required to write, “he said,” every time a source spoke in one of my stories. It becomes repetitive, even in a 250-word story. It’s far worse, however, in a 70,000-word story.
Here’s how to use no dialogue tag at all: John picked up his coffee mug and sipped loudly. “Let’s go up the hill.”
“Okay. We need water anyway.” Jill grabbed her pail.
It’s okay to use dialogue tags when you’re writing, but in the editing process, remove the tag in any place where readers can clearly identify whom is speaking.
JK Rowling, who is popular with elementary readers, mastered the art of identifying speakers without a dialogue tag in every line. This dialogue is from The Sorcerer’s Stone:
“You’re right, Harry,” said Hermione in a small voice.
“I’ll use the invisibility cloak,” said Harry. “It’s just lucky I got it back.”
“But will it cover all three of us?” said Ron.
“All – all three of us?”
“Oh, come off it, you don’t think we’d let you go alone?”
“Of course not,” said Hermione briskly.
Who speaks the fourth line? Sounds like Harry.
Who speaks the fifth line? Must be Ron.
Dialogue, WriteOn pointed out, is often the best way for characters to reveal information about themselves and their relationships, personal beliefs, and worldviews. If the character says it about himself, it conveys more believability than exposition.
To stay away from tedious exchanges, mix a few lines of exposition, a line of dialogue that reveals how one character feels about another, and a line of imperative information that the first character reveals about himself. Then move then story forward. Done right, revealing information through dialogue creates excitement and engages readers more than exposition.
Speak your dialogue
Reading written dialogue aloud will help you ensure it sounds natural, WriteOn suggested. “If it feels awkward as you’re reading it, change it.”
Spoken dialogue also helps the author hear overused words or dialogue tags. “Once you’ve changed it, read it aloud again, and keep repeating the process until it feels natural and realistic,” WriteOn wrote.
Speech patterns, personality styles, and relationships
Record a 20-minute conversation at home. Notice how father interrupts mother? Notice how friends use incomplete sentences when they’re excited about a topic? Notice how unrealistic it feels if several people speak only in grammatically correct complete sentences? Notice how their relationships affect what speakers say? We speak differently to our brothers than our parents, differently to our boyfriends than to our girlfriends, no matter what our age, WriteOn noticed.
Frequently used phrases
Rowling’s iconic character Ron Weasley kept repeating the phrase, “Are you mental?” When readers hear that, they know Ron Weasley is speaking.
Friends have signature phrases. Do your characters have catchphrases or words they use frequently? Good. People’s personalities often come out through the way they speak, so a well-chosen phrase can be a great way to help readers get to know your character. But, WriteOn noted, “Make sure not to overuse the phrase.”
Lack of paragraphing is a frequent mistake, WriteOn suggested. “Start a new line each time the speaker changes. This signals to the reader that a new person is speaking.”
In Vanity Fair, for instance, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley’s dialogue and William Makepeace Thackeray’s exposition would continue for a half page, through a dozen commas. But that was 1847. These days, readers demand shorter sentences for easier readability.
Conversations aren’t spoken in a vacuum
Dialogue isn’t only about information within quotation marks. Include visual cues that show where the conversation is taking place, how characters react to each other’s statements, characters’ facial expressions, body language, attitudes, and locations.
In real life, conversations meander and get boring. Readers don’t want to read every tedious word your characters speak to each other. Condense, WriteOn asserted, “Omit any dialogue that does not advance your plot.”
Gender, age, culture, ethnicity, personality, economic status, sexual orientation, regional background and sibling rank will affect the way characters speak.
Robin Lakoff, a University of California linguistics professor, pointed out general differences in dialogue between men and women.
Men may curse: “Shit, you broke my glass!” Women may use weaker expletives: “Oh dear, you broke my glass.”
Women tend to use different adjectives: lovely, charming, sweet, divine, adorable.
Men may state facts: “It’s hot.” Women may ask for agreement: “Is it hot in here?”
Men may state what they want: “Let’s eat at six.” Women may end a statement with a rising inflection: “Dinner will be ready at six?”
Men command: “Close the door!” Women often turn requests into questions. “Could you please close the door?”
Women tend to intensify opinions with superlatives: “I totally loved that movie.”
Younger women use “like” more. “He’s so, like, hot.”
Deborah Tannen is a nonfiction author and an American academic and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. She rejects Lakoff’s theory that dialogue is about power. Tannen puts women’s language down to women’s need for friendship:
“Girls are all about connections. They tell secrets, have best friends. They downplay status. A girl who commands is bossy. If girls give commands, they’re subtle. They punish girls by leaving her out. Boys are all about hierarchy. High-status boys verbally and physically push around low-status boys and use language to one-up each other. This shows up during talk. Girls talk about problems as a friendship ritual, and they just want someone to listen. If men talk about a problem, they seek or offer solutions. Men ignore requests from females to retain status. If woman asks again, they are clueless as to why asking a favor would be a problem. Men see that as nagging. When men talk about pain, it’s a sign of weakness. So is going to the doctor.”
Dialogue is also about what is unspoken. By using sidestep, silence and action, Hemingway got the point across through a brief, compelling exchange. This excerpt is from his 1927 short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.”
A man and a girl are drinking at a train station in Spain. The man is trying to convince Jig to have an abortion – a word that appears nowhere in the text. Her reaction is silence.
The man sets up his question: “Should we have another drink?”
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said. (Set up)
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.” (Sidestep)
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. (Silence)
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything. (Silence and sidestep)
I write what I want in the first draft, but in each subsequent edit, I snip a word here and there.
It sounds more like real speech, even though it is not. Here is dialogue master Elmore Leonard’s on-the-nose dialogue in Out of Sight:
“Your dog was killed?” 4 words
“Yes, run over by a car.” 5
“What did you call it?” 5
“It was a she. I called her Tuffy.” 8
After Leonard’s cuts:
“Your dog was killed?” 4
“Got run over by a car.” 5
“What did you call it?” 5
“Was a she, name Tuffy.” 5
The net difference is three words. But Leonard reduced the second and fourth sentence to a fragments, and it sounds leaner. It isn’t real speech; it feels like real speech.
Adrian Fogelin, an author and conference speaker, pointed out that conversation happens in the present, so it sounds more immediate. Because dialogue is short, and each speaker has his own paragraph, dialogue gives the page more white space.
Pages of exposition look more challenging. Dialogue looks more readable.
Dialogue gives characters the space to express their ideas in their own words, with their own grammar and syntax. Dialogue can be used to build or reduce the tension between characters. Contrast these two sentences.
“Well, I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowheres.”
Eschew additional adverbs like “angrily.” His words and actions should tell the reader Joe is angry.
Do what characters do with their bodies while speaking.
John brought his fist down on the table. “Dammit, get the job done!”
Use dialogue to contradict what is being said. Which does the reader trust, the words or the action?
“You know I love you.” But he stared over her shoulder.
Have your characters move. In films, characters always move; they rarely talk in a room and not move. Work a beat into written dialogue with a pause, or a physical movement, or by breaking glass, or with a waiter coming a table, or with a stray thought, or with a gesture.
Anchor setting to dialogue to correct “talking heads,” which occurs when characters ping-pong comments back and forth. Example:
She stared at the rain pounding the sidewalk. “Couldn’t you wait a while?”
Contradict a character’s spoken words with her thoughts:
“No, really, you look wonderful,” said Joan, thinking she had never seen anyone look quite that haggard.
We’ve heard “We’re not in Kansas anymore” a hundred times.
Avoid clichés and lines we’ve heard in other movies or read in other books. It’s okay to write it in the first draft, but change a few words in the second and the third draft so that it becomes original.
Write chitchat in the first draft, but when you edit, turn it into something original and interesting and suspenseful.
Recall the Fatal Attraction scene when Michael Douglas’ character walks into his home and sees his wife chatting his lover, played by Glenn Close? At this point, Anne Archer does not know about Dan’s affair. His wife introduces Alex.
Dan: “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Alex: “… Oh, we’ve definitely met.”
If a character’s dialogue rambles into a monologue in the first draft, Twitterize it. Try to boil it down to 140 characters. You’ll be surprised how much fat can be edited out and how natural the dialogue will sound.