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The Writer's Compass » About Writing, Becoming A Writer, Featured » Writing Dialogue

Writing Dialogue

Good dialogue can be difficult to write. One of the exercises that I recommend is to go places where people are gathered and sit and make notes on what they say, how they say it, and what they leave unsaid. You’ll notice that by the tone or by what is left unsaid, you can tell what the dynamics are between two people. Body language helps get the message across.

“Yeah, you’re so smart.”

What did I mean by that? My tone and body language will tell you if that’s a compliment or an insult. Since the reader can’t see the speakers, you can add body movements that correspond to the dialogue to give more meaning. Also, the way the other person responds tells you how they took it, regardless of how the speaker meant it. You can add more tension to the dialogue by having the reader say one thing and the listener say something as though in a different conversation or have them misunderstand each other’s intentions.

In writing dialogue don’t write every word. For one, that would be boring, and two, it slows down the pacing. Write what is necessary to get the point across. That being said, you may have a character who is verbose and a character who barely completes a thought. Say enough that the reader will understand the point. Have a character use words that fits his/her background and culture, if from the same culture, have them speak using words that reflect their world view: dark, upbeat, comical, intelligent, etc.

It is especially difficult when writing historical or futuristic dialogue as you don’t have an opportunity to hear those conversations. Start by writing the way a person would talk if it were here and now, without any contemporary slang. Make it simple and direct. Then make slight changes that will reflect the character’s personality. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to make this type of dialogue too formal or stiff, thinking that will represent the way people talk in other time periods, but it usually doesn’t come across that way. It’s better to use contemporary language than to use dialogue that doesn’t feel genuine to the characters.

A word about slang. Slang dates a piece. Words go in and out of fashion and if you use “cool,” then we will think that this is a story from a couple of decades back. A piece that you want to be timeless, suddenly becomes dated by the slang you incorporate, even though contemporary at the time you wrote it.

Writing with an accent should be used sparingly and only on certain obvious words. If you overdo the apostrophe, it becomes annoying to read. If you tell me the character is Irish and then only accent an occasional word, I’ll get it and hear it when the character speaks. It becomes tiresome when overdone. 

When writing dialogue in a foreign or “new” language, but using English, be careful about sprinkling in foreign words. If you do, make sure that somewhere there is a follow-up explanation in context so that the reader understands. In other words, the response could be something that makes it obvious what the “new” word meant. But be careful, I recently read an author who did an excellent job weaving in the explanation of the foreign word, but I kept wondering why the speakers were mixing foreign words in when their dialogue was supposed to have been translated into English for me to read. If they were speaking in English, the sprinkling in of foreign words would have made sense. But if they were speaking a foreign language translated to English, why put in the foreign words. It didn’t make it feel more authentic to me, it made me feel that the author was trying to make it feel more authentic. (I hope that made sense.)

Basically, keep dialogue brief and cut unnecessary words, unless the character is verbose. Start with plain English, then change the words to disseminate interesting information, reflect the character’s personality/culture, and to reflect tension between the characters.

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