Some writers love dialogue. They find that they have a natural ear for how different characters speak, and that the dialogue races along, carrying the story with it. Others struggle over every word of a dialogue-heavy scene, feeling that the characters sound stiff and unlifelike.
Fortunately, there’s a huge amount of great advice on writing dialogue; I’m going to be quoting from three authors and books:
- Nigel Watts – Teach Yourself Writing a Novel (and Getting Published)
- Elizabeth George – Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
- Robert Graham – How to Write Fiction (and Think About It)
The function of dialogue
I’m sure you know what dialogue is – spoken words between two or more characters. What I want to look at here is what purpose the dialogue serves within a story.
Watts writes that all dialogue should accomplish at least one of the following three things:
- Moving the story forwards
- Giving information
- Contributing to characterisation
George agrees that “in the most basic kinds of writing, dialogue serves the interests of moving the story forwards.” She believes, too, that better writing involves dialogue that contributes to characterisation, where “what [a character] says and how he says it tell us as much about who he is as do his actions”.
For George, however, really good dialogue goes far beyond this. She suggests that it can:
- Foreshadow events which are to come
- Make these events more vivid when they do arrive
- Give characters, and the relationships between them, life
Both Watts and George agree that dialogue shouldn’t only exist to give the reader information. This sort of speech invariably sounds clunky and unnatural, as characters often end up telling one another things that the reader knows they’d already be aware of. (“Your wife, who you married ten years ago…”)
Making dialogue sound natural?
One of the major struggles which many writers have is writing natural sounding dialogue. Characters often end up sounding stilted, wooden and unreal. George suggest that a good author “gives [dialogue] the look and sound of natural speech even while he knows he cannot make it a reproduction of natural speech.”
Here, George is saying that dialogue should have a certain verisimilitude – it should seem real to the reader, but it shouldn’t have all the umms, errs and false starts of real speech.
Try taping two or more people talking, or reading a verbatim transcript of a live show. You’ll find that the result is almost unintelligible. You don’t want your dialogue to be this true to life, though; unless, as George writes, your character “has a speech impediment, low-wattage brain power, synapses misfiring, or psychological problems, and the dialogue is being used to define his natural limitations.”
To make dialogue seem natural – without boring the reader to tears or making them think that all the characters are blathering idiots – try some of these tips:
- Use contractions (“don’t”, “shouldn’t”, “can’t”) unless a character is very stuffy or speaking in a very formal context.
- Let characters break off sentences, or speak in phrases rather than sentences. (You might think of these as verbless sentences – they’re great for dialogue.)
- Have characters interrupt one another.
- Use the occasional “um” or “er”, if a character is being particularly hesitant.
Giving characters distinct speech patterns
When writing dialogue, it’s important not only to make the words sound natural but to distinguish (and characterise) your characters by the way in which they speak. Graham writes that “dialogue is characteristic of the person speaking it”, and emphasises that the words a character says must seem “in-character” for the reader to accept them as real. Watts emphasises that “as your characters have different physical and emotional characteristics, so too should they speak differently.”
Some factors to consider when finding each character’s “voice”, as well as their personality, are:
- What sort of educational background does the character have?
- Where are they from (geographically)?
- How old are they?
- What do they do for a living?
All of these will affect whether your character is terse or long-winded, whether they use technical terms or layman’s ones. They’ll also determine the sort of slang that your characters use (none at all? Out-of-date slang? Offensive slang?)
One area to be cautious about – something which Graham, Watts and George all mention – is the use of dialect. If your character has a very strong regional accent, the reader will quickly get tired (or confused) if you attempt to spell everything out phonetically. As Graham says, “You don’t want your story to grind to a halt while readers work out syllable by syllable just exactly what has been said.” Try using a couple of regional words to give the dialogue the right flavour: a Scottish character, for instance, would use words like “wee” (meaning “small”) and “bonnie”.
Do you find dialogue easy to write, or is it one of your weak areas? Do you have any tips on writing realistic speech that reveals character, moves the story along and makes characters come to life?