Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dialogue Primer

If you’re having trouble writing dialogue that sounds natural, but not too natural (it sounds like a real person but not so real that it includes the uhs and wells), sometimes it helps to channel your characters.

You know the people living in this world you’ve created better than anyone (other than the characters themselves). Each person is different. They have different backgrounds, grew up possibly in different parts of the country, show different quirks, and so on. They will NOT all sound alike. So you can’t just write the same words in the same cadence for every character. Each character has a different personality.

One way to channel a character is to write a scene, then read the conversation aloud. Do both characters sound the same? Try reading the conversation without any tags or descriptions. Read only the “spoken” words. If possible, record yourself. Now listen back to it. Can you tell which character is speaking just by the words and the way they speak? (The way the character speaks, not the way you read it.) If you can, try giving just the spoken words (no tags, no filler) to someone else who’s never read your manuscript. Can they identify the speaker?

Can you go back and cut extraneous verbiage, like the uhs and ers? Yeah, we all say them, but it can be very annoying to read that in pages and pages of dialogue. You want your “people” to sound real, but not annoying. Sometimes even though a character would say a contraction like “don’t,” we find ourselves typing “do not.” See if you can catch those. Most of us use contractions. Of course, there are times when you might deliberately have a character use no contractions. If that’s the way that person speaks and if there is a viable reason for him/her to speak that way.

Be careful of using too much slang. What is popular today may not be in two years, let alone ten. And be careful of using spelling to indicate dialect. It can be difficult for readers and can get old quickly. Find other ways like cadence to show dialect.

Also, remember that just like a scene should move the plot forward, so should the dialogue between characters. It should have a purpose. That purpose doesn’t always have to be visible to the reader, though. People in real life and in your book don’t always directly answer questions. They have their own agendas and tend to direct the conversation where they want it to go, not necessarily where the other person wants it to lead. Their answers may have double meanings, meanings that they understand and that hedge the question, but that the other person and the reader may not understand until later.

Work on the dialogue in your book. The manuscript will be better for your efforts.

Note from Helen: I probably won't blog again until next Monday. Tomorrow, I leave for Bedford, Texas, to lead a workshop for the North Texas Professional Writers Association.

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