Let’s Write Dialogue
A Written Remains Member Post by Carson Buckingham, Author of GOTHIC REVIVAL
Much like canning tomatoes and making the perfect loaf of bread, writing effective dialogue seems, for many writers, to be shrouded in mystery.
Well, if you can read and follow directions, you can have tomatoes from your garden this winter.
If you can read and follow directions, you can save yourself three or four dollars on a loaf of bread.
As to writing?
It’s even easier.
I’m here to tell you the ‘big secret.’
All you have to do to write brilliant dialogue is write the way people actually speak.
I have always been in love with our language, and one of my favorite things to do is to go to a bar, a restaurant, or any place else with lots of people, and eavesdrop. Listening to the way people converse, to the way the use or don’t use the language, to the accents, to the listening skills they have when in conversation, the way they interrupt, what they find amusing, the subjects they discuss, and so much more. It’s all there. It’s free. All you have to do is listen. Don’t take notes—just listen.
So, if you’re having trouble writing realistic-sounding dialogue, this is the first thing you should do. Really focus on the way people speak.
Once you have that down (and it will happen faster than you think, if you pay close attention), try writing some dialogue. You can even try to recall a conversation you overheard. It doesn’t have to be a complete story. Just try a paragraph with two speakers. You try, and I will, too:
“Omigod, I’m so happy to see you! You’re not gonna believe what just happened!”
“Please, my dear, sit down. And lower your voice—this is a restaurant, not a bullfighting arena.”
“My purse just got snatched, and you want me to make nice with the public? Screw that!”
“If you are going to spew vulgarities, then I’ll be going.” He placed his linen napkin on the table and stood.
“See the police, and let me know what they say. Enjoy your lunch—it’s paid for. And here’s cab fare; since I assume your car keys were in your purse, as well.”
So, what do we have here? Just a short conversational exchange, but what can we learn from it?
One of the people is a youngish female, who was probably not well brought up, if, she was willing to make a scene in a crowded restaurant. We can glean from her speech patterns that she is not terribly well-educated: ‘make nice with the public’ rather than ‘sit down and be quiet’ and ‘snatched’ rather than ‘stolen.’ The other is a very formal older man—either her father or the other half of a May-December romance—he is well-spoken, so is probably well-educated. He values manners and does not enjoy embarrassing situations. He feels that the young woman should have been able to handle the situation herself, and is forcing her to, by walking away. He’s a rather cold person who refuses to understand and make allowances for the distraught young woman. He could have walked her outside and listened to her, but he doesn’t.
Oh, and it was an upscale restaurant, too, if they had linen napkins.
As you can see, your readers can learn a great deal in a very short time if you handle your dialogue well. As a matter of fact, if you read the above dialogue out loud and you have the least leaning toward the theatrical, you will probably find yourself giving a smart-alecky or ditzy voice to the girl and a snooty voice to the man. This is another thing that good dialogue will do.
So how did you do with your paragraph? Did you read it out loud? Did it sound realistic and create a picture of the speakers in your mind? If not, try again, and keep on trying until you are happy with it.
Then try some more.
Another thing you may have noticed about the dialogue I wrote is that it is not peppered with ‘he said’ and ‘she said.’ You knew who was speaking without that, because the speech patterns varied so much that you would not mistake one speaker for the other. I realize that this is not always possible when, say, you have a couple of teenage boys speaking. They are contemporaries and will sound similar. But ‘similar’ is the key word here—nobody speaks exactly the same way as another person does, with the possible exception of identical twins. So, if you can vary the speech pattern slightly with one of them, such as giving him a mild lisp or having him drop his ‘g’s when he speaks, it would vary the dialogue sufficiently that you will be able to avoid ‘he said, she said.’ In any event, you will have to use ‘he said, she said’ sometimes, and when that occurs, don’t use it after every line for every speaker—only use it when it could be unclear about who is speaking—like this:
“I’m afraid to go home,’ Monica said.
“Oh, come on—it can’t be that bad.”
“It’s worse. You have no idea.”
Jennifer sat back, stunned. “Is it your husband, sweetie?”
“So what’s going on?
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Monica said, bursting into tears.
In a seven-line conversation, I have only used three identifiers. If you read the conversation out loud, it reads smoothly and conversationally. Now, try inserting ‘Monica said’ and ‘Jennifer said’ at the end of each line and see what it does to the conversation. It bogs it down and makes it irritating, doesn’t it?
I hope this article will help you improve your dialogue skills. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to contact me at: cbuckinghamauthor[at]gmail.com, or on my Carson Buckingham Facebook page.
Thank you, Joanne, for inviting me to participate in this blog. I hope you’ll ask me back sometime.
Carson Buckingham has been/is a novelist, a short story writer, an editor, a stand-up comic, a comedy writer, a technical writer, a humor columnist, an advertising copywriter, a newspaper reporter, and a book reviewer, and a blogger. Her work has appeared in a dozen different anthologies, and she has two single-author works available on Amazon: Home (a novella) and Gothic Revival (a novel). Both are paranormal suspense. She lives in the Bluegrass State with her wonderful husband and their crazy parrot, Renfield.