We’ve all dipped into them: books whose plots zip along well enough but whose dialogue makes you want to slit your wrists. Or maybe the authors’ wrists. The kind where characters stand around telling each other what they already know, as if they have one eye on the reader and want desperately to clue in. Or whose characters don’t sound quite like they’re from this planet because something’s off in the rhythm of their speech.
Dialogue’s one of those places where your characters make themselves known directly, without the interpretation of the narrator. Or, let’s face it, the writer. So it needs to convince.
Great dialogue comes naturally to a few writers, and if you’re one of them, go read something that’ll be more useful to you. Me, though? I had to struggle with it, so if you’re not a natural, let me make a few recommendations:
Listen. Seriously. Listen to a short snippet of conversation. Then go away and write down as much it as you remember. It may not be much, so do it again, and then do it some more. Tune yourself to the rhythm of your own speech and the speech of people around you. Listen not just for the content of what people say but for the words, the phrases, the rhythms, the grammar, the oddities. Listen for anything that marks one person’s speech as particularly their own. In some speakers, you’ll find a peculiar strength and poetry once you learn to hear it.
Tape conversations. This is a variant on the last exercise. Tape a short bit of conversation, then transcribe it. Keep it short, because transcription’s a slow process. Again, you’re tuning your ear. A student of mine did this once and learned that her four-year-old had been tracking an entirely different set of events than the adults were.
Read your dialogue out loud. This feels strange at first, but do it anyway. If you have trouble speaking the words you’ve written, so will your characters. If something feels wrong, you don’t necessarily need to know what the problem is, just try something else. You don’t have to limit this to dialogue. Reading everything you write aloud will tune your writing to your speech patterns.
Redefine dialogue. Dialogue isn’t just about speech. Listen for the pauses. Notice who interrupts and who gets interrupted. Watch for gestures and the ways they add to the conversation, and detract. Watch what people do with their hands and with the things they have in their hands. Or with their heads, their faces, their feet, and anything else you can think of. Watch where they breathe. Watch where you breathe, and how and why. Listen to the sound of their voices as well as the content. When you write down your snippet of dialogue, you don’t have to limit yourself to words alone. You may want to, but you can also use silence, visual information, and anything else that helps get the interchange on paper.
Notice the grammar of the spoken language: Very few of us use officially approved grammar when we’re talking. Example? Would you say “who interrupts whom”? It’s grammatically correct, but the spoken language is abandoning whom, and many of the people who still use it struggle to keep the rules straight because they don’t hear it enough for it to come naturally. Another example, and one I’m fond of, is the double is: “the fact is, is that….” I think it’s an Americanism, but how or when that got started I have no idea. We also speak in half sentences, in non-sentences, in sentences that on paper would go on for half a page. We change our minds halfway through what we’re saying and end up pairing a singular verb with a plural subject. We do all kinds of things that would drive a grammar teacher to tears, and we don’t notice most of them. Teach yourself to notice, and instead of disapproving, love the oddities.
Notice word choice: Listen to the actual words people use, not just what they’re trying to say. Who says, “That’s the way we speak” and who says, “That’s the way we talk”? What impact does that difference have? The more closely you listen, the less predictable your dialogue will be, and the more real.
Respect the speakers: Don’t try to make everyone sound the same. Respect the differences in their speech, but don’t exaggerate them. Treat all accents with respect—especially the ones that are different from your own. Be very careful about trying to catch an accent by misspelling words. A very few writers have managed to make this work, but the odds are good that you’ll make the character look ignorant—and make yourself look even more ignorant in the process. If you’re trying to capture an accent that is (or that you consider to be) nonstandard, use a very light hand or you’ll sink.
And finally, enjoy it. The spoken language is beautiful in all its oddities and unpredictabilities. Love it.
Ellen Hawley is the author of three novels, The Divorce Diet (2014), Open Line (2008), and Trip Sheets (1998). She has taught fiction writing and has worked as an editor, a cab driver, a radio talk show host, and several other improbable things. Her blog, Notes from the UK, is about the oddities of living as an American in Britain. Stop by and see what she’s up to.