Let’s Get Talking: Dialouge
- December 31, 2018
Dialogue can be intimidating if you’re not sure where to start. Afraid your characters all sound the same? Think your dialogue sounds awkward and unnatural? Not even sure where to get started? Never fear! The following tips will help you step into and spice up your dialogue, pushing it beyond just “he said/she said.” Let’s get started!
Know the Character, Know the (Linguistic) Quirks
Everyone speaks differently. It’s simple, monumental, and true. When discussing unique dialogue, I always think of Hagrid from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. As a child, I often had trouble reading some of his lines—unless I read them out loud. Hagrid is tall, hairy, and loud. As a half-giant, he stands out, and his dialogue matches that.“Ah, go boil yer heads, both of yeh,” said Hagrid. “Harry—yer a wizard.”Sounds completely different than eleven-year-old Harry’s “Hagrid,” he said quietly, “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.”Harry and Hagrid sound completely different from each other, and given their backgrounds and situations, they absolutely should. Your characters’ lives will influence their dialogue. Spend time with them and get to know them! Where are they from? What are they like? What do they like to do for fun? Learn their likes, dislikes, skills, and hobbies; when you know that, it’s easy to pick out their language. Some people use slang, some multisyllabic words; some people say a lot at once, others very little if at all. Does your character use some of the same words as other members of their community? Do they use jargon from work, school, or some other background experience? Do they have a stutter or a lisp? Do they swear? Do they have an accent that stands out to other characters or your intended readers? Depending on what they’ve lived and where they’ve been, your characters will speak differently. You don’t have to know every detail about your characters, but the more you know, the easier it is to start.
Listen to People Talk
I’m not saying eavesdrop on everyone, but…eavesdrop. On everyone. How do your friends and family speak? How do they speak to their parents? How do they speak to their friends? Their children? Their pets? The language people use changes based on who they are speaking to. How your character feels about the people and structures in place around them should be reflected in their word choice. How do they speak when they’re happy? How about when they’re mad or sad? The tone, the words, even the speed that people talk at changes with their mood and audience. If you listen to a stranger on the phone, can you tell what they’re feeling? Take notes, if that helps (not on what they’re specifically saying—that’s kind of creepy. ;D )! Their words, tone, and demeanor will tell you. Remember those things, and communicate them in your own writing
Now we get to the crunchy bits. You’ve got the words down. But who is talking? Dialogue tags are helpful and necessary, especially for prolonged discussions. This is your standard “they said” after the words spoken in quotations. When writing scenes with multiple characters, dialogue tags are essential for avoiding confusion. They tell us who is speaking—and more importantly, how. The word “said” is a great ally—it’s solid and dependable. It tells you that something was spoken aloud.Annnnd that’s literally all it tells you. People don’t just “say,” they growl and scream and whisper and so many other things. Sometimes you don’t need flash; sometimes you just need “said.” But sometimes you need words to express strong emotions or specific characteristics. In that case, other verbs will serve you better.
It’s Not All About What They Say
Certainly what a character says is important, but it’s not the only way they can speak! One of the hardest things to convey in written messages is tone. How many times have you misinterpreted an email, note, or text message? Without other cues, like facial expression or voice, the message can become muddied. Fortunately, we have another tool for dialogue: body language. The way someone’s face and posture appear can tell a great deal about their attitude and character. Do they cross their arms? Are they stiff? Are they smiling? Does the smile reach their eyes? The way people hold themselves tells as much about them as the words they use. Take this example from Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns. Sisters Natalia and Genevieve Arron are examining a young queen. “She is thin to the ribs,” Genevieve says, and smacks them lightly, as if it might scare the bones farther under the skin. “And still so small. Small queens do not inspire much confidence. The others on the council cannot stop whispering about it.” She studies the queen with distaste, her eyes dragging across every imperfection.Not a nice lady. On the other hand, there’s Natalia.“She is the smallest and the youngest of the triplets,” Natalia says in her deep, calm voice. “Some things, Sister, you cannot change.”Natalia cocks her head at her sister. The gesture manages to convey at once how sympathetic Natalia is to Genevieve’s worries and how tired she is of hearing them.Genevieve’s actions suggest cruelty and dissatisfaction. Her sister Natalia, however, speaks and moves in a way that suggests acceptance and grace. Though they are blood relatives, they have vastly different mannerisms and attitudes, and that is reflected both in the words they speak and the actions chosen to describe them.Sometimes, a character’s actions will not coincide with their words: a character might say something that sounds honest, but fidget with a secret lie. Utilizing the relationship between their spoken words and their actions will give you well-rounded characters that are compelling to read and carry your story forward!
Cut the Filler
So now you’ve got a pretty good edge on dialogue. But! So now you’ve got a pretty good edge on dialogue. But! Not every detail needs to be recorded. Writing is as much about what you don’t include as what you do. Dialogue is no different. Listening to others, you’ll often hear vocals pauses: “um, so, uh, well” —and these pauses come up quite often. Cut the filler words out. If you use them (and you absolutely can and should!), use them with impact. You want your dialogue to sound authentic, but you want it to be readable as well. Does a word sound weird or unhelpful? Cut it out. Is it there for a purpose? Leave it in. And this goes beyond single words—if there are lines of dialogue that you don’t think serve the character or the story, cut them. If it sounds wrong without them, you can always put them back or change them.
Read Out Loud
This is usually everyone’s least favorite part of English class. But it’s important, I promise—at least at first. This is often where awkward or stilted dialogue can reveal itself. Reading your dialogue out loud or having a friend or family member read it can help you hear if it sounds natural. Assuming you’re writing in your native language, you have at least a decade’s worth experience of what words should sound like. However, that knowledge doesn’t always transfer directly into crafting successful dialogue. When you read out loud, you use that literal “ear” for language to ensure your dialogue sounds as it should. Practicing this skill over time, you’ll develop an “inner ear” for dialogue. Additionally, reading out loud forces you to S L O W down. When reading in your head, you might often auto-fill words that aren’t written. As the writer of your work, too, you know all the details of what you’re trying to convey—but that doesn’t mean you’ve communicated them in the words. Just try reading it out loud to catch the weird. I promise it’s not the worst thing ever!
I know this is a boring tip. But it’s true! While listening to the way people speak helps inform your dialogue, reading teaches you how to execute that information. Just look at the examples used so far in this article—the more you read, the more you’ll learn. Look at the dialogue in your favorite books. What do those books do well in dialogue? Mimic it. What do scenes you like less need to improve? What details would help clarify the mood? Answering those questions will help you with your own dialogue. Read everything, and take notes on what is effective and what is not. You’ll find that the more you read, the easier it is to write. ExperimentMy favorite and most important tip. Go nuts. Experiment. Write everything. Try things you think are silly. Copy the style of writers you like and combine the styles you enjoy—the more you write, the more you’ll find your own voice. Writing is an amazing, magical process that everyone does differently. These tips aren’t set in stone! They’re not the be all end all for dialogue—they’re just tools to get you started. Try everything you see and figure out what works best for you. The world needs your story!
– A Ghost Author, Molly Brynne
Thank you for joining us for this week’s Ghost Authors. This week’s blog post was the wrap up for our Five Pillars of Story-Building. If you missed the last four, feel free to click back and catch up. Next week is the start of a new series on writing in different genres. Leave us a comment below and tell us what you thought. This week’s guest writer was Molly Brynne. You can follow her on social @nefariousmollyb. Give us some love and share this post if it helped you in your writing. Farewell until next week, and have a happy Monday!
Written by: Molly Brynne
Produced by: Bethany Lord