Monday, March 28, 2011

How to make your dialogue sing

Or talk, I guess.

Either way, dialogue is one of the most important parts of writing. So I figured it was about time to talk about how I write dialogue and how I work to fix bad dialogue.

Now, these are the tips that work for me. Not everyone is going to find this post useful. But if you're having problems with your dialogue, if it just feels like something is off and you're not sure why, take a look. Maybe I can help.

And thus, presenting, ten different ways to improve your dialogue:
  • Eavesdrop on people
    A lot of new writers write how they imagine people to speak--which is often based off of bad movie dialogue. Overcome this by spying on people. Listen to your fellow bus riders and grocery shoppers. You'll find that conversations aren't always straight-forward. People like to talk about more than one thing at once and arguments can hide behind an "innocent" discussion on cabbage.
  • Cut out the fluff
    One of the most important balances in writing is keeping dialogue realistic, but not too realistic. No one wants to read your character stumbling through sentences--fictional characters should always be coherent when speaking. But at the same time, their dialogue isn't always going to be grammatically correct. Like I said, careful balance.
  • Make sure every word counts
    Small talk is boring in real life and it's ultra boring in fiction. If your characters are ever discussing something that's not vital to the story (ie: the weather), then it's probably time to cut it short. Pay close attention to characters meeting new people, because introductions can also fall into this category.
  • Avoid telling the story
    Using dialogue as a means of exposition is a problem 95% of the time. You want your dialogue to be genuine, not constantly bogged down by the need to explain what is or isn't happening. If your characters must explain something, just make sure it's not information your reader already knows.
  • Remember your setting
    If you're working on a high fantasy, it's best to not use colloquial vocabulary unless you're going for an anachronism happy mashup like A Knight's Tale. Not only does it feel awkward, but your readers will have a hard time taking you seriously. Also, in the case of pop culture references, there's a good chance that ten years from now your readers will have no idea what you're referring to.
  • Remember your characters
    Did your character have an extremely formal education? Or did she grow up speaking Pidgin on the streets? These kinds of details are important. If your character isn't British or doesn't have some kind of connection to Britain, she has no reason to be using British slang. Inspect your dialogue and make sure that it's in character.
  • Make sure your characters have voices
    Try writing a scene that's strictly dialogue. No dialogue tags, no descriptive paragraphs. Nothing but dialogue. Now leave it alone for a day or two. Then come back and read through the scene. Can you tell who is speaking when there are no cues? Everyone talks differently, and if your characters are sounding the same, focus on improving their individual voices.
  • Tread lightly with dialects and accents
    It's really easy to overdo a cultural dialect or make it completely illegible. The goal is to keep things colorful without sending readers running, and there are several ways to approach this. My suggestion is to listen to native speakers. There are plenty of videos on YouTube, and the more you listen to your dialect/accent of choice, the more you'll be able to pick up on it's nuances and distinct vocabulary. It also helps to write the dialogue as you normally would and then add in the accent. But most importantly, keep things simple.
  • Read conversations out loud
    Maybe something sounds natural when you're writing it, but one of the best ways to tell is through vocalization. If you stumble over the words, if they come out jagged no matter how many times you repeat them, how can you expect your character to say them? Reading aloud can help you keep dialogue smooth and natural, so never be afraid to do it.
  • Start reading plays
    Broadway plays, Grecian plays, Shakespearean plays--read any play you can get your hands on. They all have the distinct advantage of relying heavily on dialogue to make things happen. Conversations in plays are never a waste of time. Focus on how playwrights keep things simple and clean, and then apply that to your own writing!

What do all of you think? Do you have any other tricks to keep your dialogue realistic? Or do you have any further questions or issues? Tell/ask me in the comments!


Brenna Braaten said...

I think you make some good points, however there are a couple of things I disagree with. Most of it, though, makes a lot of sense. I am totally one of those people who writes the way I think people speak rather than actually how they speak. Sadly. Curious when you talk about colloquial vocabulary, do you have an example? (And I don't mean pop culture reference here.)

Sarah Robertson said...

Mind if I ask specifically what you disagree with?

Colloquial vocabulary/phrases. One of the best examples would be a high fantasy where people are saying things like, "Gosh darn it." Not necessarily a bad thing to say, but can you imagine Frodo uttering those words?

Brenna Braaten said...

That would be one of the things I don't specifically like. It actually bothers me a bit that everyone in fantasy sounds so old fashioned.

Sarah Robertson said...

Yeah, but what if the rest of your story dialogue is antiquated but you throw in random bits of colloquial goodness? It doesn't matter what you choose, but you need to stick with something. That's what I meant.

Also, what else don't you agree with? I'm curious :P

Brenna Braaten said...

Okay. I guess I except that a little more, then. Obviously some things can't be mentioned if there isn't anything like that.

I don't remember what else I don't agree with to be honest. Maybe it was just that.

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