No one would ever say that.

One would think that since we, as a population living in communities, speak almost every single day, often to several different people on various subjects in a multitude of tones and emotions, the easiest thing to sit down and write would be dialogue. One would think this, but then, one would be wrong. I receive a vast number of queries that are winners as far as synopsis or narrative introductions go, but fall devastatingly flat once any of the characters try to speak to one another. Even inner monologues are troublesome.

Why is that? We can write realistically about dragons and wizards and time travel and dangerous situations that none of us have ever or will ever experience, but when it comes to simple conversation, suddenly the words become wooden or entirely unnatural sounding. It takes a certain skill to be able to write dialogue that sounds right—that sounds as if it is something that each particular character would actually say.

Obviously, there have to be some liberties taken, as a novel that recorded absolutely realistic dialogue would get boring very quickly. I’m the first to say that not every conversation I have is riveting or full of interesting and witty phrases (don’t be too shocked), nor are the thoughts that I have constantly worthy of note. A good writer, however, will meld these two necessities together—one, that the characters sound like real people saying real things and two, that the pacing remains in sync with the rest of the narrative—and their book will be better for it.

Bad dialogue, I find, is often cliché-ridden, devoid of any contractions, too expository or explanatory, boring or any combination of these and more. How do you, as active writers avoid falling into these traps? How do you give your dialogue and monologue valuable and characteristic qualities? For my benefit, and for the benefit of readers everywhere, I implore you.

14 Responses to No one would ever say that.

  1. S. says:

    I’ll be the first to admit that dialogue KILLS me.

  2. Silver James says:

    I “act out” the dialogue. I know how a character sounds in my head. I know the cadence of their speech, the vernacular they’d use, the words they’d emphasize by tone of voice. I write the dialogue and then I read it out loud, playing the part of each character, changing voices, like a mini stage play. If I’m still not sure it sounds right, I prevail upon spouse, critique partner, or child to read the scene with me. Somewhere along the way, the give and take of the conversation falls into place and I can move on.

  3. Sarah says:

    I say the dialogue out loud before I write it down. That may sound crazy, but I imagine I’m having the conversation and what I would say. Then I change it to how the character would say it (i.e. tone, words, etc). I also listen. I’m a naturally quiet person, so I listen a good deal to how other people talk, phrases they use, inflections, etc, and store these in my memory bank to draw upon when I’m writing dialogue.

  4. Catherine Whitney says:

    I write nonfiction, which is a little different, but there’s still plenty of dialogue. (People talk in real life too!) I tape people talking, and that helps capture their authentic conversational style.

  5. Eric Christopherson says:

    Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

    Oh, and read authors renowned for their dialog and see how they do it, take every syllable apart. I’ve learned a bit of something from Raymond Chandler, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard, and others. (Although sometimes this learning method can be daunting as the dialog can be unattainably good.)

  6. I say it all out loud. I think I’m known as the crazy lady in my neighborhood because I’m always walking down the street, trying out conversations for my characters. I don’t even have the excuse of a baby in a pushchair I could be talking to anymore….

  7. Kaitlyne says:

    I used to be terrible at dialogue, to the point that I avoided it at all costs. After a lot of work, though, it’s become second nature and is often one of the elements I’m complimented on when people read my writing.

    Part of what helped me is rather unconventional, but I found that using instant messaging was a good way to grasp the way people actually talk in writing. Part of this was talking to others and paying attention to how they spoke, but most of it was recognizing that when I instant message someone, I almost always write what I’m thinking, what I’d say, rather than complete thought out sentences. They were informal, full of slang, fragments, etc., but also without the usual “ums” and pauses and odd repetitions that are common in actual speech.

    I paid attention to my words and how other people spoke and began trying to imitate that in my writing. It became much easier to see when a character was saying something that sounded very awkward or unrealistic.

    The bigger challenge once I learned to write naturally was learning to distinguish between the characters so that they didn’t all sound the same. A lot of times this takes conscious thought for me. I’ll listen to a character talk in my head and try to pay attentions to the patterns. Some people are very casual while others are a bit more formal (or the same character might be both depending on who he’s talking to). Some use the word “that” often, and others might curse.

    This is something I still have to pay attention to in revisions. Sometimes a character will say something that doesn’t sound quite like him, or two characters will sound very similar and I’ll work to vary the sentence structure or phrasing a bit more.

    I also think doing critiques can help. When you see what is wrong with other people’s dialogue it becomes easier to notice similar errors in your own.

    • Donn says:

      I think that’s a great idea! Imagine each sentence was IMed.

      I hate dialogue that rambles, even while I know real conversation always does it. But I also hate dialogue that only hits the Point, as if the characters are personality-less robots devoted exclusively to furthering the plot.

      Picturing it as IMed sounds like a good way to imagine realistic, characterful conversation without the digressions and delays of ordinary speech.

  8. Gill Avila says:

    Kate, wear a non-functioning Bluetooth; nobody will look oddly at you.

  9. Terrific post, Rachel! I think we want our characters to sound smart, witty and/or more interesting than most people are, which can definitely go too far. On the other hand, there’s a fine line between mundane and realistic. (Imagine if we wrote ‘um’ as often as people say it.)

    I, too, find that reading my dialogue aloud helps. I also try to limit poor grammar to one character, eaves drop often and watch lots of movies… 😉

  10. Guess I’m a mutant here; I find dialogue the easiest part of writing. (I’ll credit my junior year English teacher for encouraging writing that sounded the way I talk–minus the ums and how many times people call you by name, which they DO do in real life :)

    Often I’ll hear my characters talking to one another. I jot down the conversation as they’re having it then go back and insert description, tags, etc. That becomes seeds for a scene. Sometimes I’ll read it aloud. (That actually makes me a little crazy; I never sound like my male characters should, lol.)

    Nice post! Thank you!

    Joanna Aislinn
    Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
    The Wild Rose Press
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  11. Andrea says:

    I love dialogue! It’s one of the things that come natural to me when I’m writing, so I’m afraid I can’t offer any real advice on how to do it. I guess it all comes down to hard work. I never liked description very much, for example, because I thought it was a waste of time and I just wanted to get on with the story, but several books (fiction and books about writing) and workshops later, I am actually enjoying all aspects of writing.

    Dialogue is closely related to character work, I think, and as long as I know who my characters are, I know what they would say in a specific situation.

    • Andrea says:

      Posting my first reply actually got me thinking about it a bit more.
      With every sentence I write for my current (first) novel project, I ask myself if it adds anything to the story. Dialogue can reveal character, or reveal plot information, increase conflict, solve conflict, etc. I delete any dialogue that doesn’t have any function, as well as any dialogue in the “as you know Bob” category: dialogue that doesn’t come from the character but from the writer.

  12. Megan says:

    My first rule of writing natural-sounding dialogue: Throw the rules of good writing out the window. Real people use bad grammar, broken or run-on sentences, etc. Second, I imagine the scene in my head, watching and listening, to see how it plays out. This helps me to hear each character’s voice and inflection. And third, revise revise revise. I often wind up changing dialogue once I re-read it with fresher eyes.

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