My schedule has become so packed that something has to give. That something will be Tutorial Tuesday. For now I’ll be re-posting older tutorials. The following originally appeared June of last year.
Let's talk. And by that, I mean let's look at dialogue. It may be the single most important ingredient in writing fiction since it serves so many functions. It gives the reader information, moves the tale along, and provides insight into the characters. But how to do it with the greatest effectiveness? Today I'm sharing the tricks I use to give my characters their voices and to make their conversations flow while imparting the important details.
Sounding Natural Without Real Speech
You do not want your dialogue to read like real speech. Trust me on this. I do some side work transcribing films and videos, and real speech is incredibly awkward. Have you ever noticed what natural conversation sounds like? It's full of run-on sentences, half-formed thoughts, tangents that wander away from the main idea, and tons of uhs, ahs, and stuttering. Here's an example of real-life, unscripted dialogue as captured on film:
"So, um, you know, this is the, the real importance of the training, of law enforcement training in rural jurisdictions. The, you've got to remember, these places have less than five officers in most cases, in over fifty percent of the country. Of the U.S. Um, all right, so they don't have a lot of time, um, a lot of, um, officers who can leave for like four or five days, for, um, for training they need. For training that's required. You know, so that's really, really important."
Good heavens. If I wrote that in a book, readers would put it down immediately. Possibly even stomp on their Kindles and Nooks. And I wouldn't blame them. This speaker was quite intelligent and well-informed, and he SOUNDED like he knew what he was talking about on film. But once it was written out in black and white, it read like a tongue-tied teenager trying to borrow the family car for the first time. It did not represent him at all.
No, you do not want to write real dialogue. You want to write realistic dialogue, dialogue that sounds natural without all the ums, you knows, and stutters. Some of that is okay here and there, but not in mind-blowing quantities. If I wanted to capture the natural feel of this speaker on the printed page, I'd probably write it like this:
"You know, the real importance of law enforcement training in rural jurisdictions lies in making it accessible. The trouble we run into is that over fifty percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have five or less officers. So these agencies can't have officers leaving for four or five days for the training they need."
It reads true to the speaker's knowledge while remaining conversational. And that's what you want dialogue to do for you.
Accents and Dialects, Y'all
Another important aspect in writing believable dialogue is making it true to the region your characters are from. This is another area where less is more.
My family comes from North Carolina and Georgia. We are talking heavy Southern accents, as you can well imagine. If I was to wallop you with a phonetic version of how my family speaks, you'd spend more time deciphering it than is reasonable to expect from any reader. Case in point:
My dad: Thayat ol' boy went huntin' an run up aginst a bay-er in thuh wuds. He jumpt up in his truck, drove on bayack home, and changed his drores.
My aunt: Wale, ah shorely bet he diyid!
By the way, my father is a member of the Mensa Society, not a backwoods idiot as the above might suggest. So to retain the flavor of his accent while keeping him from sounding like a denizen of 'Deliverance', this is how I'd write the conversation:
My dad: That ol' boy went hunting and ran up against a bear in the woods. He jumped into his truck, drove back home, and changed his drawers.
My aunt: Well, I surely bet he did!
Now if you'd like to impart a heavy accent that's a bit hard to understand, I see a lot of authors use the following technique:
My dad laughed and told us, "That ol' boy went hunting and ran up against a bear in the woods. He jumped into his truck, drove back home, and changed his drawers."
I'd been away from home too long. It took me a moment to translate his words, which came out, "Thayat ol' boy went huntin' an run up aginst a bay-er in thuh wuds. He jumpt up in his truck, drove on bayack home, and changed his drores."
Now you can write the rest of the conversation in readable English, because your readers have the flavor of how the character speaks. Pepper in a few 'caint's' for can't and 'y'all's' and it takes care of itself from there.
Learn from yourself. I use my own grammatically challenged speech patterns in my writing. I have a bad habit of saying things like, "There's so many ways to write" rather than using the correct "There are so many ways to write". And I'm forever 'fixing' to do something. "I'm fixing to go to the grocery store. Y'all want anything while I'm out?" My Yankee inlaws are always tickled by this turn of phrase. Little idiosyncrasies like this give a character great flavor and make her stand out from the rest, so by all means grab your own dialect and use it in your stories.
Featuring the Voice Talents of...
A good way to make sure your dialogue contains the character's personality is to 'hear' it as spoken by another person. If you want your character to sound like a Civil War era Southern gentleman, read it over with the voice of Rhett Butler or Ashley Wilkes in your head. You've got a hot-blooded Latino male lighting up the page? Channel Antonio Banderas. A character hailing from your own hometown? Hear how it would sound if spoken by your next-door neighbor.
And read all dialogue out loud. That's right, even if the people around you think you're absolutely nuts, recite it. That trick above all else will help you catch errors and poor word choices that lead to clumsy dialogue. Your eyes do not hear, so don't rely on them exclusively to make written speech work.
Make Every Word Count
Dialogue in a story is a high-wire act of imparting information while keeping it realistic. Not real (we went over that) but realistic. Every line should move the tale along; no fluff need apply. Study each and every sentence with an eye towards cutting where possible. If the dialogue doesn't give you pertinent information about the character or the situation, or it doesn't foreshadow something huge that is to come, get rid of it. I don't care how lyrical and lovely the passage might be. If it doesn't serve the story, it's bogging your work down. It's like having a sexy man in your house who doesn't put out. No matter how nice he is to look at he still has to serve his primary purpose; otherwise he's just using up air and making you feel crazy. Hold your writing to no less.
Shut Up and Let Me Get a Word in Edgewise
Keep a conversation rolling by limiting the use of long-running monologues by a character. No character should go on and on for an entire page, even if he's making a speech. It shuts the action down and bores your reader. I try to limit each paragraph of dialogue to three sentences, five at the max. After that point, I throw in a bit of action or have other characters jump in with their two-cents' worth. Just having another character react once in awhile to what your longwinded speaker is saying can be enough to keep it flowing.
Don't Tell Me What I Already Know
Don't have entire conversations revolve around what the characters are already aware of just so you can toss out information to your readers. The phrase "as you know" is an exposition tool you must destroy. Just look at how clunky and unnatural this sounds:
"As you know George, when our father died he left us a hefty inheritance which we've been fighting over ever since."
That sentence is absolutely awful. No one in real life ever says this.
We'll look at how to handle back stories and expositions in a future post, but for now, make sure you don't let this nasty thing sneak into your writing. It's just plain bad. If you MUST state something all the characters are already aware of, try something like this:
"It's ridiculous we're fighting over this inheritance, George. Dad split it evenly between us," I reminded him.
So that's what I have to say about dialogue. Hopefully I haven't been too longwinded myself on this subject. Happy writing!