Last week I talked about the rules of dialogue based on some issues I’ve seen in self-published works recently. Following the rules makes it easier for readers to follow along with conversations between characters. Today I want to talk about an equally important topic of creating conversations that sound realistic.
Writing dialogue is different than writing narration, and it also changes depending on if you’re writing in first or third person. It comes down to remembering that in your writing you will have different voices, just like people have different voices. The narrator has one voice and each of the characters have their own voices. This may sound complicated but it comes down to our good friend characterization.
Creating the Narrative Voice
The narrative voice is often the first voice created while writing, (not always but often.) Through the narrative voice you can set the tone, atmosphere, and pacing of the story. When in the third person the narrator is detached, reporting on what happens even when viewing it from within the head of the point of view character, whether that character is the protagonist or another character.
In first person it’s a little bit different because your narrator is also a character in the story, and that should be reflected through similarities between the narration and the character’s dialogue.
Another question to consider is that if your characters have an accent or dialect, will your narration have the same accent or dialect? Will the narrative include slang or be more literary? The answers to these questions will help to build the narrative voice.
One of the main aspects of the narrative voice is to remember it is the voice of the storyteller. When we tell stories verbally, we have a different cadence to our pattern of speaking than when we are in conversation. In most cases, the narration will follow the technical rules of writing. There may be some variance when writing in a
perceived accent or dialect as to whether or not the narration uses slang. For the most part, however; the narration will have a different rhythm to dialogue.
Creating Character Voices
When your character speaks, it should be a direct result of their characterization. Each character will have their own unique perspective on a conversation and that will tie directly into their background, motivation, personality, and role in the story. How characters respond to the world will directly influence there contribution in conversation.
Consider whether a character is talkative and bubbly, or if they are reserved, shy, or sever. The amount a character speaks and their word choices will reflect their personality beyond their mood.
For example, a talkative character might say something like; “Oh my gosh, you won’t believe what happened at the store! I was in the freezer section looking for pizzas and there was a lady with a rainbow wig looking at the peas. It was the strangest thing.”
If we take the same story for a quiet character it might go more like this; “I saw a lady with a rainbow wig at the store today.”
From these examples you can see how the same information can be delivered in different voices. Word choice and punctuation make major changes to the delivery and tone.
You also want to consider what your character knows about the plot, and what is hidden when they speak. Are they keeping secrets or are they straightforward? Dialogue is a great tool for misdirection if used properly, to keep your reader (and characters) guessing.
The age of your character will also be important to how they speak. A child will have a different cadence than an adult. The word choices of a teenager will be different than those of an elder.
Consider the time period of your novel and words that may or my not have been used. Only a few small changes to the word choice can change the tone of dialogue completely.
Consider the following example:
“I cannot go to school today, mother. I am feeling under the weather.”
Now look at it again:
“I can’t go to school, mom. I think I’m sick.”
It’s the same line, but by changing the word choice it has a completely different tone, attitude, and indication of character and place in history. Word choice will sometimes come down to research if you’re writing a historical novel or even writing characters outside of your age group. In the last fifty years a lot of different slang has come and gone.
Similar to creating a narrative voice, you want to ask yourself about accents, dialects and slang the character would use. It is important to note that over use of accents can make it difficult to read. Using accents to “flavor” the writing is a good thing, but you don’t want it to overpower the story.
Eliminate Stiffness in Conversations
Poorly written dialogue can feel stiff and unrealistic. It is reminiscent of actors on a stage who do not fully know their lines. Knowing your characters is only the first step to relieving stiffness in their dialogue. There are a few other things to try to find your problem areas.
Research the way people talk to each other. That means you need to really listen to other people. Family, friends, and co-workers are just the beginning. Movies and television are helpful, too. You can also watch YouTube videos or live streaming to hear people talking in real time without being scripted.
Read. Read. Read. That’s right, pick up other books and read them. Pay attention to the dialogue. Learning from other writers is something we should all be doing. You may also start to notice when you’re reading poorly written dialogue, and that’s a good thing. Being able to spot problems will help you with your own writing.
Say the lines out loud. Yes, this can be embarrassing, but if you hear the words, you will be able to hear the problems. This doesn’t need to be done in public.
Plan your dialogue in advance. We all do this in real life. You have imaginary conversations with that co-worker who chews really loudly at their desk. Maybe you have something to reveal but are nervous, so you practice in front of the mirror. Planning out your dialogue while you do other things will make it easier to write once you sit down with your pen or at your keyboard.
Remember that dialogue should be written as people speak, not as writers write. Very few people speak with perfect grammar. If everyone in your story sounds like a text book, the dialogue will be unrealistic.
- Creating different voices in your story is part of characterization
- Your narrator is also a character, even they aren’t a physical character, with its own voice
- Your character’s age and personality will dictate how they speak
- Research, Read, Rehears your dialogue
- People do not speak with perfect grammar, and neither should your characters
That’s all for today. I hope this is helpful and if you have any more tips please feel free to leave them in the comments.