Well hey there, partner! It sure is nice to see ya! Hope yer ready to talk about dialog, ‘cuz I’m about to git right into it!
Today is the 10th day of Blogtober. We’re about a third of the way through the month and we’re showing no signs of slowing. I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them! The experience has challenged me to unpack what I know about writing, or what I think I know, and the act of expressing these tips in essay form has served to reinforce guiding principles.
Dearest reader, I must confess that as the cold hand of winter draws ever closer, as the sun’s dominion over the heavens grows weaker, and the bitter, ever-changing Moon reigns through the lengthening darkness of night, some of these posts grow more vexing to write. And so it is my dearest hope that you will bear with me as I make my way through these words, for this treatise on dialog, I fear, will be the most challenging yet.
The key to good dialog is voice. Different people speak differently, their dialects divided by region, upbringing, age, affluence, and physical factors. A well-educated character might be more inclined to speak with longer words, eschewing the monosyllabic for complex diction and phrases meant to make them sound haughty or superior. A fella that didn’t maybe quite finish school, on the other hand, maybe might talk with smaller words that ain’t quite so clean.
Once your character has a strong voice within your mind, writing their dialog is easy. The characters will tell you what they want to say, and it’s your job as a writer to capture it as truthfully as you can. Truth in this case refers to staying true to the character, and not necessarily the content of your character’s speech.
In a medium that allows you to physically hear the different voices, such as movies or audiobooks, a different voice can be conveyed by altering the pitch and placement of the sound. On the page, you have two main tools available to capture the distinctness of each voice: the description and the content.
The description is the prose surrounding the text, and is the lesser of these two tools. It is you as a writer telling the reader what the character sounds like. This is where you can describe slurred words, a crisp British accent, the sing-song soft consonants of a Selas, the rumbling basso, the breathy rasp, the hoarse shout… you get the idea. You don’t have to (and you shouldn’t) do a lot of descriptions of the voice, and you should be wary of repeating yourself unless it’s for a purpose. That’s why this part of describing voice isn’t as important or as powerful as the words of the character themselves.
Since I started writing this post, I’ve demonstrated a few times how I can change my voice just by changing the content. I didn’t need to use dialog tags or any sort of description to the change the voice. I just did it, and you (more than likely) heard it.
The content of a character’s speech includes the verbs, nouns, adjectives, all of which shape the rhythm and delivery of the speech. Some people speak in language which isn’t as pristine, dropping punctuation, adding or removing articles in whatever way they see fit. This is the means by which you will be able to express your characters’ differing voices. If you do it right, you won’t even need to use dialog attributions.
I usually think I do a decent job at writing dialog. Sometimes my critique group disabuses me of the notion, but then I forget their criticisms and I go back to feeling like I’m Quentin Tarantino.
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’m not as great at dialog as I think I am. How would I improve? What can I do to make my dialog feel more natural?
The first thing I’d tell myself is go do some people watching. Sit in a coffee shop, and let people’s conversations wash over me. The idea isn’t to spy or eavesdrop. I’m not interested in the specifics of what they’re talking about. I’m only interested in the way they talk. The modulations of the voices in the conversation. It’s like a dance, rising and falling and swooping.
People ask questions they already know the answer to. People reuse phrases they’re comfortable with. People fill the empty air with banality to make themselves and the people they’re with feel more comfortable. They approach important subjects then veer away, like carrion swooping over an uncertain carcass.
If I were giving myself advice, I’d tell myself to listen to the different approaches men and women take when talking about a subject. I don’t mean to stereotype or reinforce the binary, but in American society, the most common male approach to conversation is more direct, with a focus on fixing any perceived problems. The most common female approach is to share and empathize.
It’s important to remember that when writing dialog, the writer should try to emulate natural speech without actually being natural speech. When humans talk to each other in real life, they repeat themselves. They have a lot of “uhms” and “ahs” and other weird mouth noises dropped in to provide space for them to collect their thoughts.
Also, movie characters are usually way wittier than real people. Fictional characters quip like stand-up comedians. You can do this in your stories, and it will be entertaining, but it may not be realistic. Decide what kind of tone you’re going for before making all of your characters comedy geniuses.
I have heard it said that dialog is one of those parts of writing that people either understand intuitively, or they don’t understand at all. I don’t fully agree with this sentiment. While there are some people that seem to have a natural talent for writing how people speak, anyone can write good dialog with enough practice.
Your exercise tonight: imagine two characters locked in some place and forced to talk. All of the details are up to you. Maybe it’s two strangers trapped in an elevator. Maybe it’s two friends in a car on a road trip. All of the detals are up to you. The caveat to this exercise is that you can only use dialog to convey the message and characterization.