Writing Club: Dialogue That Works

Welcome to another edition of writing tips, prompts and folderol. (Look it up.) Today we’ll look at writing dialogue that isn’t clunky, baffling or boring. But first we warm up…

cuff_last_passenger_corn_brook_5505-minute prompt: TRAVEL

Planes, trains, automobiles, boats, bicycles, or feet. Five minutes, stream of consciousness, write whatever comes to mind on the topic… GO!

For some reason most of my thoughts on the topic tend to the befores and afters and not to the actual travelling: airports and train platforms, figuring out schedules, waiting in line, delays, waiting for luggage, missing luggage, etc.

What’s the strangest mode of transport you’ve ever used?

Writing Dialogue

Putting actual words in the mouths of your characters can be easy or it can be difficult. Some writers have a natural ear for it, while others sweat and toil to make it sound right. Writing believable, effective dialogue takes practice, care, and attention to detail. Work hard on this aspect of your writing because nothing can sink a brilliant story quicker than clumsily written dialogue.

Some things to keep in mind:

gals_talkKeep it Natural. You want your dialogue to sound like someone would actually say it, right? Try reading it out loud. Does it flow naturally or stumble along? Listen carefully to everyday conversations and note how speech differs from the written word. We are lazy talkers: we speak in sentence fragments, we don’t finish our thoughts, we “um” and “uh” and “y’know” and “like” too much, and we interrupt each other constantly.

Don’t get me wrong, your dialogue doesn’t have to be spot-on naturalistic all the time or your characters will seem rather dim-witted. Make them more eloquent than reality if you like (Gilmore Girls anyone?), but at least be aware of how people really talk when you sit down to write.

Each character should be unique in the way they talk. Nothing bores me more than reading a story in which every character speaks like every other character. Can you switch the names around and it doesn’t make a difference who says what? Yikes! Make sure the personality of each character shines through in their speech patterns and word choices.

"Dude, don't go there." or "Thou shalt never enter the meadhall of the gods!"

“Dude, don’t go there.” or “Thou shalt never enter the meadhall of the gods!”

Pay attention to tone. Your characters should speak in a way that matches the tone of your story. For example, the modern-day teens of the Percy Jackson books do not talk like the dwarves and elf lords of The Hobbit. If you are writing a classic fantasy tale you want the language to be as formal and ‘timeless’ as possible. That means few contractions, more archaic expressions, and absolutely no slang. (If you really want to go crazy of course, you can make up entirely new languages like J.R.R. did.)

Pay attention to slang and anachronisms. If you are writing about characters in another time, do a little research on the slang from that time and try not to include obviously modern words. A quick internet search can unearth slang dictionaries from almost any time and place, from Shakespearean curses to 1920s flapper terms for booze (“giggle juice”). If your story takes place in the 20th century, watching old movies from that time will really help you too.

Don’t dump exposition into your dialogue. You may be tempted to cram background info into your dialogue, but unless you are very, very careful this will result in laughably clunky lines. For example:

“Your youngest daughter Amy is on the phone.” Probably just saying “Amy’s on the phone” would suffice here.

“Our mom is on her way.” This gives the reader the information that the two characters are siblings, but nobody would actually say “our” in that sentence, they’d just say “Mom’s on her way.”

“You’ve hated this place ever since you arrived two years ago.” Another example of a writer wanting so desperately to impart specific information that they end up writing unnatural dialogue. I’d skip the “two years ago”.

I could go on. You’ve all heard clunky expository dialogue, you get the picture.

6a00d8341caebd53ef017743b24a8b970d-piMake the conversation flow naturally. Don’t jump from topic to topic or it will seem too random. Conversations happen in real time and each person is thinking on their feet as they go. Make every line flow naturally as a reaction to the line before.

(The exception to this would be a conversation between two people who are not listening to each other, of course, which has its own challenges!)

What’s between the lines? Always keep in mind what is unsaid but present, ie. deep feelings, anxieties, as-yet-unrealized attraction, deceptions, secrets, lies, misconceptions, prejudices… Though not directly stated, these can peek out from time to time in your character’s speeches.

Give them something to do while they’re talking. This is especially important when writing a script. The action shouldn’t come to a halt every time they open their mouths. Whether they’re folding laundry, stirring soup, or killing zombies, be sure to keep your characters doing something while they chat to each other.

Know when to just skip it. Is character A telling character B something the reader already knows? It might be best to replace the direct dialogue with a swift “She told him everything that had happened.” This is a good idea especially when you are in the middle of action/adventure and don’t want to slow things down.

Like I said before, it takes great care and attention to learn how to write effective dialogue. I’m always harping on the importance of keeping a notebook and this is another terrific use for it: you can jot down snippets of overheard conversation, weird grandparent expressions, unfamiliar slang, new words, foreign phrases, odd turns of phrase, etc. This is all writer’s gold!

Another great resource – www.imsdb.com – read the scripts of your favourite movies and study the dialogue.

New Words

obtuse – annoyingly insensitive or slow to understand; slow, ignorant, witless; (of an angle in geometry) more than 90° but less than 180°. The two meanings of this word reflect the common pairing of sharp=smart and dull=not so smart.

And I’m so excited at all the bird words my writers brought in this week! (I’m a bird geek.)j-22769

cardinal – (noun) 1. a leading dignitary of the Roman Catholic church; 2. a deep scarlet colour like the robe of a cardinal; 3. a songbird of the bunting family, with a stout bill and typically with a conspicuous crest. The male is partly or mostly red in color; 4. (adj.) of the greatest importance, fundamental. It would appear that the word was first applied to the church clergymen (because they are second only in importance to the pope), and then came to be associated with the colour red because of their robes, and only after that was applied to the songbird. Aren’t evolving words fascinating?

Kestrelkestrel – (n) a small falcon that hovers with rapidly beating wings while searching for prey on the ground

ani – (n) a glossy black long-tailed bird of the cuckoo family, with a large deep bill, found in Central and South AmericaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

shady – (adj) 1. situated in, or full of shade / giving shade from the sun; 2. of doubtful honesty or legality – suspicious, disreputable, sketchy, dodgy

Tudor – of or relating to the English royal dynasty that held the throne from the accession of Henry VII in 1485 until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603; a member of the Tudor family

And finally, your moment of –

Grammar Zen

Here are two words that are commonly confused: affect and effect.

AFFECT – is a verb

EFFECT – is a noun

She was affected by the phases of the moon.

The effect of the full moon on the girl was astonishing.

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