Talk is cheap.
It’s one of the great truisms in life. It’s also the name of a really good album by Keith Richards (he of the Rolling Stones) but that’s a discussion for another day.
When it comes to writing novels, however, talk is where the money’s at.
Whether you’re writing sci-fi, romance or horror – if your dialogue doesn’t ring true you may find people talking about your work in ways that aren’t very flattering.
I began reading recreationally while I was in college (way back when), prior to that I avoided books like the plague because the books assigned to me in high school English Lit class held very little appeal to me (shameful behavior which I talk about here).
While I was in college I accidentally began reading Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. His descriptions of small town life reminded me of my own upbringing (I guess a small town in Maine and one in Rhode Island have lots in common) so the story captured my interest, but the dialogue was the thing that grabbed me.
I remember thinking “Wow! You can write books like this?”
King was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Eventually I stumbled onto Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and that was all she wrote for me – my love of reading was immediately catapulted into a desire to write.
One of the predominant themes running through my list of favorite authors is the ability to craft realistic dialogue.
Leonard, King, Koontz, Dorsey, Hiassen, Evanovich and Grisham to name a few.
Dialogue, in my opinion, can make or break a story.
Actually, let me revise that statement.
Good dialogue will not save a poorly written story…but bad dialogue will certainly ruin a well written one.
I’ve never spoken to any of the authors listed above about their methods, but I can reverse engineer just about anything – and through reverse engineering I’ve figured out a few simple tricks for writing dialogue…
Know your characters and know how they would talk
Elmore Leonard’s characters are not the cream of society. Most of them are urban criminals who tend to have very little use for proper English and even less use for a moral compass, so their speech, as one might imagine, is filled with contractions, slang and cursing. It also violates practically every rule of grammar ever written – and probably a few that haven’t been written yet.
Grammar violations notwithstanding…when you read an Elmore Leonard novel it’s the dialogue of the characters that keeps the story moving and keeps you turning pages. Elmore never needed to waste words describing extraneous crap, because his dialogue put you in the story so deeply you could see, hear, smell, touch and taste everything.
In stark contrast to Elmore’s revolving door of degenerates…take John Grisham’s Harvard educated lawyers and white collar criminals. Their speech is representative of their social standing and upbringing, which make his stories ring true.
Now if you were to insert Leonard’s dialogue, as well written as it is, into a Grisham novel – well, let’s just say that Tom Cruise would have had one less movie on his resume.
Make sure each character has their own way
Listen to people when they talk – it’s the best way to learn how to write dialogue – and you don’t have to listen very long to see that each of us has our own little idiosyncrasies.
Me, personally…I tend to use the phrase what-not fairly often. I used to work with a guy who, for some strange reason, began many of his sentences with the word anyways.
Think of your characters as individuals with their own speech habits. Maybe one of them mispronounces a word (or words), another might have a habit of using the wrong word in an effort to make his vocabulary sound impressive.
Paying attention to such small details will make your characters seem more like real people, which will help your reader become more invested in them, and, in turn, your book…and what-not.
Keeping it real can be done without getting too real
You want your written dialogue to sound as though it was transcribed from an actual conversation, but, there are limits to how much of that conversation you want to record.
When most people talk they subconsciously insert fillers into their sentences—such as: like, uh, & you know.
I think most of us hear these things so often that our brains tend to block them out. We hear them, but we process the sentence as though they weren’t there.
Even though these fillers are a natural part of our everyday speech, they would be extremely unnatural, and really annoying, in written dialogue.
So, uh…leave them, like, out.
Regional dialects, slang terms and cursing can be overdone
If your novel is set in the south, it can be very tempting to throw in a bunch of y’alls or have your character say things like fixin to. While it may be geographically correct, too much of it will annoy your readers.
The same applies to slang. Naturally, a little bit of slang will definitely make your dialogue ring true, but there is a fine line between a little bit and too much. Overdo it and your readers will start skimming over it.
Cursing and foul language is a similar situation, but, in my opinion, a much more difficult one to gauge. Not only do you have to try to use the right amount to sound genuine and still avoid being annoying, but you also have to worry about offending people. This is where you have to think about what your character would say, as well as how much your audience will tolerate before they throw your book into the recycle bin.
Remember that your reader can’t see ‘tone of voice’
If you subscribe to the anti-adverb school of writing, you’ll find yourself facing another dialogue challenge…conveying the character’s tone of voice. Vocal inflections, smirks, smiles, frowns, grins and other indicators of the intent behind our speech can’t be conveyed in written dialogue, and you’ll be drummed out of the writer’s union if you over-use attributions like he said facetiously. There’s only one way to solve this particular conundrum…sharpening your character development skills. Craft your characters skillfully and your readers will know them well enough to interpret the unspoken meaning behind their words.
Pay attention to the calendar
I was talking to an editor recently. The topic of dialogue in novels came up (covert research on my part for this post!) and she told me about her biggest pet peeve…make sure your dialogue is historically appropriate!
I’m sure none of you need to be told that if your novel takes place in the Victorian age or colonial America you need to be historically accurate, after all it would have seemed a little out of place if Rhett Butler had said “Check it, bitch, I don’t give a fat rat’s ass.”
But there’s more to it than just covering the big chunks of history. Here in America slang phrases come and go faster than iPhones, so what is accurate today could be painfully outdated a year from now.
The editor I mentioned told me she had been working on a novel written from the point-of-view of a teenage girl. The problem was that the author (a baby-boomer) failed in her attempt to capture the lingo of a modern day teenager; instead the dialogue all sounded like it was straight out of the sixties.
Moral of the story…in addition to using jargon sparingly, make sure it’s accurate for the time period of your book, whether it’s last week, last year or the last century.
Unless your character is a robot, don’t make him/her speak like one
This last one is sort of a mop-up, catch-all tip. It incorporates a few of the previously mentioned ones, but deals with real-talk.
As I said earlier, listen to people talk.
Nobody says: “I am going to go to the store. Would you like me to purchase something for you?”
They say: “I’m going to the store. Want anything?”
Contractions may be a lazy way of speaking but we all use them…all the time.
When it comes to dialogue, the contraction is your friend…
Instead of I am, he would, she will and they are – use I’m, he’d, she’ll and they’re…because that’s how people talk.
There you have it…my nickel’s worth of free advice.
I hope it’s useful to you – and if you have any tips for writing dialogue please feel free to share them in the comments section.
As always – thank you for reading