Dialogue that sounds unnatural can alter the entire tone of a story and the reader’s perception of your characters. Most people have watched films or read books where the character says something that seems unrealistic.
Writing dialogue for the first time can be tricky. There’s a tendency for beginners to write dialogue in a way that over-explains, revealing everything through the words of their characters instead of their prose.
This is an easy trap to fall into. Sometimes it happens without you even being aware of it. It’s only when you or someone else reads it back that they realise anything is amiss. Dialogue, although it does differ from speech in that it is more coherent and structured, needs to have some resemblance to real conversation if it’s to be believable.
Here’s a few quick examples:
“Thirty years ago, I was working as a housemaid in Kent and I met this young gentleman who…”
This sentence may be fine if the account of this character’s history is the focus of the scene or book but if the scene is someone asking a close family member where they picked up a beautiful painting of Kent they may reply like this:
“That? I got that when I worked in Kent thirty years ago. Some gentleman gave it to me.”
See how much more natural the second one is. There’s more character to it. That’s what dialogue does, it shows character. How someone speaks in your novel or story relates to who they are.
The other extreme of this is when dialogue becomes excessively like speech, written exactly as it would be said.
“Tha-? I got tha- when I wurked in Kint thiree yirs agow.”
This version has more character and accent but the accent has taken over what the person is saying. I have to admit that I find versions of accents in text barely readable even when it’s supposed to mimic that of my own. You may still choose to do this but be aware that this is harder to read and may not get across what you want it to.
It’s also useful to consider that writing in this way can be taken as offensive by the people whose accent is being portrayed.
My own Lancashire accent is far stronger to others than it is to me and to see it written in such a way can be seem too stereotypical. It’s worth remembering that in the character’s mind they will not hear an accent and to keep this to a minimum unless it is the focus of the scene (i.e. a scene about miscommunication between two people from different parts of their country).
If in this same scene the character has something to hide she may reply more like this:
“The painting? It’s nothing.”
Whereas if she is angry that she is being questioned about it and feels that the questioner is being rude she may express the sentence differently again. The point is that dialogue changes according to the character and situation. Try to make it natural without drawing excessive attention to it (if that is not your intention). If you still want to show a bit of an accent you can do this by using word order, sentence structure and slang (in moderation).
“Where’s she gone to now? Out on the landing?”
(Landing is used to mean hallway in my local town.)
If you want to add more of an accent you could write:
“Where’s she gone to now? Out on the landin’?”
This is still quite easy to read except for the use of landing. The point is that the extra accented part doesn’t dominate the whole sentence.
Think of what the characters want to say and what they don’t say (which is often a lot more interesting than what they choose to share) and think of who they are. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is the situation?
- How would that character really react?
- Does the dialogue sound realistic?
- How would you really expect people you know to react in this situations?
What is the relationship between the characters communicating? I.e. Boss and employee, two friends gossiping, formal or informal?
Remember that you may not consider all of these when you are writing. As always, trust your judgement in what is right for that particular story and particular character.
- How to write fiction: DBC Pierre on convincing dialogue (guardian.co.uk)
- Daily Dialogue – October 26, 2011 (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- How to write with dialogue (economiclanguage.wordpress.com)
- Tips for Revising Your Novel (bardicblogger.wordpress.com)
- On Writing Fiction: Walking Backwards to Walk Forwards (annisik51.wordpress.com)
- Opening Scenes in Fiction (bardicblogger.wordpress.com)
- Dialogue – a powerful tool! (madgeniusclub.com)
- Talking To Yourself (madgeniusclub.com)
- Two Hot Tips To Make Writing Dialogue Easier (pittsburghflashfictiongazette.com)
- 10 Things You Can Do With Dialogue (pittsburghflashfictiongazette.com)
- Dialogue: Dry or Lively (storybodyguard.com)
- Dialogue Punctuation (ptbsaysgoodbye.wordpress.com)
- Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Terrible exposition (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- Wordsmith Wednesday: Writing Dialogue – What People Don’t Say (via liv2write2day’s Blog) (bardicblogger.wordpress.com)