Something a lot of us struggle with is writing dialogue, even though talking is a necessity of our everyday lives and we’re subjected to constant chatter from one person or another. When it comes to translating that onto the page, though, we struggle. A lot of us also do things in written dialogue that we don’t do when we speak. For example …
We all use contractions when we speak, e.g. don’t instead of do not, can’t instead of cannot, aren’t instead of are not . But for some reason, when we write dialogue, a lot of us revert to uncontracted words. It makes our dialogue stilted, or formal.
This is the most overused word in dialogue. People are always prefacing their dialogue with it. E.g.
- ‘Well, he says he’s going to come tomorrow.’
You’d be amazed how often it’s used. I can only guess that writers feel it helps them segue into what’s going to be said. Nine out of ten times you can chop it without affecting the dialogue.
This goes for prose in general, but a common misconception is if we stuff big words into the mouths of our characters, it’ll make them sound intelligent. No, it makes them sound disingenuous (and does the same for prose).
Listen to people speak. Truly listen to them. We stutter, we ‘um’, we pause, we mispronounce words, sometimes we simply forget the word we’re going to use, and often we begin one sentence … then break-off mid-stream to start a new sentence. On the written page, this would be infuriating. Sure we might use it selectively as an affectation, but the reality is that written dialogue is a dilution of the way we speak.
And yet despite that, we need to be as real as possible. Use those contractions. Listen to the vernacular. If you’re writing teenagers, they’re likelier to say ‘gonna’ rather than ‘going to’. And represent the situation – we’d speak one way to a child, another to a friend, another to our boss, and another to the gas company when we ring them up to query the bill.
Dialogue has cadences. It’s has rhythms and nuances. The best way to test our dialogue is to not only read it aloud, but to act it. Emote it. Feel it. How does it sound? Something that looks scintillating on the page might sound clunky aloud, or might be tongue twisting.
Writing dialogue is a skill in itself. Hollywood brings in screenwriters specialised in dialogue to polish screenplays that are otherwise taut. Yet, as writers of prose, we often let (unconsciously or not) our attention to prose overshadow our dialogue.
A final note relating to dialogue: be simple in your use of attributors – the ‘he said/she said’ that comes after the dialogue. There’s a school of thought that you should only use ‘said’ and ‘asked’. Some writers introduce adverbs. E.g.
- he said wearily
she asked angrily
Others believe versatility is the key. E.g.
- he postulated
Keep it simple. If your dialogue is written well, people will get the tone. In fact, that’s a good practice for improving your dialogue – keep the attributors simple, and see if your dialogue still communicates the emotions you’re intending. If not, then it needs work.
Write until your characters are speaking for themselves in every way possible.