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Elements Examined: Dialogue

Updated: Jan 23

Since I've been teaching creative writing for the past five years, and even before that as a student of creative writing, I've accumulated a lot of concrete tools to better each element of crafting a story. I have notes and tools for things like writing scene and setting, building believable characters, and so on. I'm going to make this a series on the blog. As much as I hesitate to hand out advice since I don't have a lot of publications to my name, I still think that discussing these elements will help my fellow writers. Today, I want to talk about writing better dialogue.

I've noticed that dialogue is something that scares a lot of writers. Not just those starting out, but even people who have been writing for years still struggle to make dialogue feel natural and use it properly. I think in most writer's lives we get a handful of compliments on our writing that stick with us and we wear like badges of honor. When I was in my graduate program, I was told that I write very natural dialogue. Since then, I've made it a point of pride to ensure my dialogue shines in any given piece I write. In doing this, it forced me to examine how dialogue can function within a story, and what makes it feel natural to the character.

Obviously, different characters should have different voices. That's one of the first mistakes I see my beginning writers making in class. They get so caught up in the story that they just make every character sound like them. Or else, they lean too heavily on things like speech inflections and accents. I was once taught that if you have someone with a speech impediment, like a stutter, you only need to show it every so often so the reader remembers it, but it doesn't disrupt the writing. I use this same rule of thumb when working with accents. Many of my characters have southern drawls, and do things like drop the "g" from the end of a work like "goin'" and "doin'." I make it a huge point to only use this every so often, like if the character is making a big point, or is emotional. (As if their accent gets thicker during these times.) I also make sure not every character has a speech affectation.

Making sure your characters sound different means thinking about who they are as a person and what their background is. A teenager is going to use a different vocabulary than an adult. In addition, a teen from the 90s is going to sound different than a teen from today. Someone in the tech industry will have different short hands for things they say, a kindergarten teacher. A character's profession, age, region, and so much more impact the way they speak. We, as writers, have to consider who they are as a person and separate their dialogue from our own thoughts.

The worst iteration of this happens when people are trying to write children, or someone who is completely different than them. We've all read the precocious child in a book and known they sound completely unrealistic. We've also read the poor character from the wrong side of town, being written as a stereotype by someone who has no connection to that living situation. One of the key elements I find helps when writing dialogue for different characters is to eavesdrop (or just hang out with) people from that demographic. Writing children is easy for me because I have a seven-year-old niece who loves nothing more than talking to me. I focus on the way she hesitates and searches for words when telling a story. I think of her talking to me while I'm writing my children characters. Knowing someone in the demographic you're writing gives you a built-in source for how to write that dialogue.

Once I figure out the voice of my character, I have to think about why they're talking. I've noticed many people use dialogue as a form of exposition, which isn't always bad, but it can be lazy or overused at times. Dialogue should have conflict behind it. It shouldn't just be one character explaining to another so the reader understands the situation. There should be a back-and-forth of ideas to move the story forward. It needs to provide information without talking down the the reader.

One thing that helps dialogue feel natural is keeping it concise. We use shorthand in our everyday lives, we mostly use contractions unless making a specific point. Think about how you tell a story and how much detail you cut out to get to the point, or if you're like my husband and forget key points and then have to go back and explain things, and then skip ahead to where you were and so on. This tells a lot about a person, but we don't want to overuse over-talkers because readers will get bored and skip ahead, just like we do in real life. We want people to get to the point. Grammar isn't important when writing dialogue because we don't use it correctly when we speak generally. (I would make the argument that grammar isn't important in general, but that's a discussion for another day.)

One of the last things I use to ensure my dialogue sounds realistic is reading it aloud. Make sure it sounds natural to your ears since that's what written dialogue is meant to emulate. Remember that people don't often speak directly to one another. Everyone has their own agenda for a conversation and sometimes it doesn't make complete sense on the page, but it feels right in our minds.

For example: Someone is coming home from a long day at work and wants to tell their partner about their day.

"Hey, how was your day?"

"I hate Denise, she's such a micromanager. My feet hurt so much."

"I made some soup for dinner. It's on the stove if you're hungry."

"She made me redo the forms for the expansion. It's the second time I've done them and she still isn't satisfied."

"The same project you've been working on for weeks? Still?"

"What's in the soup? It's really spicy."

This is obviously a very small example and doesn't use speech tags or setting to show much about the characters, but you get the idea of where these people's priorities are. One is the caretaker, offering dinner to help after a hard day. One is wrapped in their own drama, unable to thank their partner or ask about their day. They're conversing but it isn't a simple back-and-forth where one line directly answers the other. Saying you made soup to someone who is complaining about their boss doesn't make much sense out of context, yet here, it works and reveals something about these characters. This scene has conflict from an outside source and causes tensions within a scene where there isn't much happening. It's moving the plot forward through dialogue.

Writing dialogue is hard. No question about it. However, it can be easier when we think about the characters as people, and think about what purpose the dialogue is serving in the story. Listening to those around us, and getting inspiration from real people is key to making sure our characters sound realistic. Giving someone a speech impediment or accent can be revealing and refreshing if it isn't overused. And when all else fails, read your work aloud. Always always. It's the number one tip I give all of my students, it's the number one tool I use when working on my own writing. Reading work aloud forces you to slow down, gives you a fresh perspective, and helps point out areas that feel staggered.

I hope these tools help and keep an eye out for the rest of the Elements Explained series.

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