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You Talkin to Me?

7

May 6, 2011 by Renee

I’ve heard several writers say that dialogue is hard, possibly one of the most challenging parts of writing. This baffles me, because I LOVE writing dialogue. Sometimes I have to scold myself and pull in the instinct to make my novels entirely dialogue. Seriously, if I could, I’d write 99% of my stories through dialogue and that just doesn’t work, does it?

Actually….No, you can’t, Renee. Just stop.

I don’t know what makes dialogue easy for one person and a bitch for another. I doubt that I could explain how I know what will sound ridiculous and what will sound natural. When I’m writing I’m able to play it through my head as I write. When editing, I can pick up dialogue problems rather easily. Now, narrative is another matter entirely. I miss things that should be blinking at me like a neon sign.

Anyway, I thought I’d share some of my tricks, things I’m aware I do in order to create natural dialogue that flows easily for the reader and enables her to slip into my characters’ worlds a little more.

1. Limit your tags and attributions.

To me, this is not just a fad in the industry at the moment. As a reader I find the fewer tags I see, the easier it is to get lost in the story and the characters. Use only what is absolutely necessary to make it clear who is talking and utilize action to show as much as possible to avoid talking heads. For example, after about four lines, perhaps character A shoves character B. He doesn’t say and shove, just shoves. “You’re an ass!” Joe shoved Bill. (not “Joe said and shoved Bill”)

2. Use slang and dialects sparingly.

Real people use slang. Real people speak with an accent. But when you go overboard, it becomes an exercise in translation rather than an enjoyable read. Don’t write everything the way it sounds, because the reader must pause to recognize what you’re doing. Instead, pepper it through lightly, which gives the ‘feeling’ of real dialogue, while still leaving the reader’s brain stress-free.

Dialect…it’s really tough to write a novel where every character shares a certain dialect. No, not tough to write, tough to read. I have a character who speaks with a heavy ‘backwoods’ dialect, but rather than write the dialogue exactly as it sounds, I utilize grammatical errors instead of spelling things wrong. How?

“He don’t know nothing. Christ, his panties get all bunched when the wind blows crossways. Can’t judge a problem by his blustering.”

The speech is a grammatical nightmare, but gives the character a distinct speech pattern without resorting to “He don’ know nothin’. Christ, his pannies git all bunched when de win blows crosswhys. Can’t judge a prollem by his blusterin’.” See the difference?

3. The best way to write natural dialogue. Listen. Wherever you go pause and listen to how others speak. When you’re watching television or movies, pay attention to word usage, pauses, emphasis, and tone. You’ll notice a lot of things that you might overlook when trying to rely on just your memory. Everyone has little quirks in their speech. I have trouble saying “caterpillar” and “vinegar”, for example. Just a thing. What? Stop judging me. If you’re writing a character who is younger, go to an area where kids that age are playing. You want to watch them while they’re relaxed and speaking naturally to pick up on little details many writers miss. Er, don’t be creepy about it. Go to a park with a friend, a restaurant, or something like that. Don’t follow them around. That’s weird. People don’t like it. If you listen carefully to children, they have a rhythm of speech that is very different from a teenager or an adult. It can help make the dialogue more authentic to become familiar with this rhythm. While you’re listening, watch. Mannerisms, facial expressions, etc. all play a role in dialogue.

So, that’s what I do in addition to ‘just writing’ dialogue. How about you? Any tips?

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7 thoughts on “You Talkin to Me?

  1. Madam awoke in a fine mood and resolved to gift us with a dialogue masterclass. So you know, she writes some of the finest dialogue in the business.“You awake?” his voice startled her.She blinked away the tears that stung her eyes. “Sort of,”“Regrets?”“Of course not. You?”“Do you have to ask?” His fingers tickled her back.Audrey shifted to tilt her face.He brushed his mouth over hers briefly before pulling away. “Should I go home?”“Do you want to?”Someone will get killed for this but, hey, live dangerously, non?

  2. Renee Miller says:

    *blushing* Mr. Cortes, you are too kind, especially given the foul mood you've had to endure lately. I recognize that passage…wait, that's mine!

  3. Vero says:

    Couldn't agree more with your tips, Renee! I suck at writing narrative. My desciptions are a total pain and need such heavy amount of editing sometimes, that I toss them to hell and start from scratch before I lose my mind. But dialogue comes fairly easy to me, always has. I guess it comes from the inherent creepiness of constantly watching people, studying them and puzzling their every tone and gesture together, ever since I was a kid. I have nothing to add to your refreshing reminder of how to write good dialoge, except maybe that one could alway record themselves speaking / acting out an entire conversation between characters, and write it down afterwords with tags and extras.Can't await a post on how not to commit suicide when writing narrative. ;)P.S. LOVED that picture of Ken the first time I saw it! I think I forgot to "like" it. I'll go do it right away.

  4. Renee Miller says:

    Blogger is acting very strange today…I'm ready to kick its ass if it doesn't smarten up. By that I mean a cyber kicking of its virtual ass. No real asses will be harmed in the process….Veronica, glad you stopped by the Edge. I will post about how to avoid gouging your eyes out or gnawing your hands off while writing narrative very soon. I think I did write a post on narrative…but I can't remember when. Last month? January? I'd look, but Blogger won't let me. *grrrr* I wondered which picture I'd post here today and I realized I don't need no Photobucket, I've got kids! She's precious, isn't she?

  5. Vero says:

    I think I've read that one on exposition and narrative, about the "show, don't tell". Nice post, by the way. My Greatest flaw in writing is not so much the telling, that's rather a side-effect, it's the tendency to pick convoluted expressions instead of keeping it simple and straightforward. I emphasize too much, and the result is not a deeper sense of what I want to show, but more telling. Yuck.I'm still working for that CLICK in my mind when I realize how to bypass that awful tendency and snap out of it. I guess it'll come when I least expect it. 🙂

  6. Renee Miller says:

    Actually, in my first drafts I do that too. I describe the dumbest things and not the stuff that should be detailed. I know I do it, so it's the first thing I edit on rewrite. I never get all of it. My beta readers usually pick up more even when I am positive I've gotten it all. *sigh* The good news is, I don't do it nearly as much as I used to. Meaning, not EVERYTHING is described in nauseating detail. It's scattered about in little bursts. 🙂

  7. Mike Keyton says:

    Blast Blogger. It just swallowed an extensive comment. Roughly remembered it went along the lines of agreeing with you that I also find dialogue quite easy/enjoyable, and that you might consider experimenting with script writing. Then I went on to describe a problem I'm currently having with my latest wip set in colonial America circa 1650 and creating a 'voice' in terms of speech patterns different to ours. I'll begin as I ended. I hate blogger and error 503

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Renee

Renee

I like to write stuff. Sometimes it's funny. I've published some novels and short fiction. I also battle an addiction to cake and potato chips, and I sometimes have inappropriate fantasies involving Kevin Spacey.

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