One of the best compliments I ever got in any of my college-level writing classes was that my dialog sounded like how people actually spoke to one another. Now, I love all of the feelings and thoughts that go through a character’s head, I love world-building like nobody’s business, but ultimately I dialog on the page. I want to hear people to whom I can relate.
The key word is “hear.”
Understand that I don’t consider myself an expert on anything (except botany, and I have the credentials to prove it. Okay, and tequila, and I have the liver to prove it) because I’m constantly learning. The most freeing thing in the world is when you learn that you don’t have to have an answer.
That’s why discussion is so great, which leads to talking, which leads me back to the point of this post: how people talk to each other. (The comment section of my Game of Thrones posts on HDJM is a great example. Everyone has their own viewpoint and you canÂ hear it in the words they type.)
I don’t want to disparage writers who idealize how people speak to one another (Diablo Cody, I’m looking at you, because teens in the ‘Aughts won’t know who the hell Soupy Sales is, come the hell on), but for me, I want to be in the moment. I want to read someone speaking and be able to see what makes that person themselves. I want personality in the way they speak.Â It has to sound real.
So when you’re writing dialog (when you’re writing anything, really) this is a must: read your words out loud. Listen to how you’ve written those words. Listen for repetition. (Like, he put his hand on her hand and they were holding hands. That’s… a lot of hands.) Listen for words that stand out, and not in a good way. Listen for Fifty Cent words.
Ah, what’s a Fifty Cent word? That’s a word that clearly reads like you’ve plucked it from a promptorium because it looks noetic. (I’ll take my dollar in nickels and dimes, please.) Having a vocabulary is important, clearly, but you don’t want it to look like you fell into a Thesaurus and grabbed any word to pull yourself back out again. (Speaking of thesauruses, PanLexicon is my go-to for when you know you want a similar word, but can’t think of it. You can look up something like “smart,” then click on “intelligent,” and it narrows your search. If you searched “smart, ache,” that’s a whole different set of words given. How cool is that!?)
When you have people speak, they’re going to have their tics, their phrases. Because people do. There’s a reason why #DadJokes is a thing. A guy from Mississippi isn’t going to talk like a woman from Boston. That seems obvious, but how many times have you backed out of something because you couldn’t distinguish between characters enough and they became bor-ing?
You also have to determine if you’re letting one of your characters say something in a repetitive manner (Jud Crandall’s “Ayuh,” in Pet Semetary, for example)Â because it’s who they are, or decide that you’ve just not given enough flavor to that character.Â And the key is to say it out loud. Seriously, you should do that with everything you write.
Never forget that dialog is more than just “said this,” and “asked that.” It’s:
“A-are you sure?” she asked,Â shiftingÂ nervously, her hand splayed at the base of her neck.Â
Squaring his shoulders, he nodded. With a tight, rough voice, he bit out, “Yeah. I’m sure.”Â
Clearly these two are deciding on a vaccination schedule for their new puppy and not anything shady or stressful.
We don’t just talk to each other, we use our bodies to emphasize key points, to explain our motivations, our emotions. Use that to color your speech. Visualize the conversation, think about how it sounds when your characters are talking to one another. HereÂ is a bit from my novelÂ The Bones of You,Â where a secondary character Moira Byrne tries to get information from the protagonist, Oliver about a love interest.
Moira fanned herself. â€œAll that and looks, too? No wonder you look like your mam died. Oh, bollocks. She didn’t, did she?â€
At Oliver’s eye roll, she continued. â€œSoâ€¦ what happened there? I’m going to get it out of you, one way or another. The other way involves me getting you so shitted that you pass out at my flat. And I won’t be held accountable for what I might end up doing to you in such a state.â€ She winked.
Oliver didn’t believe that wink, though. â€œI’m not going to forget that night when you tried to make out with me, you know.â€
She faked a pained sigh with her hand over her heart. â€œAh, you can’t blame a girl for thinking I could get you gee-eyed enough that you might forget I have the wrong bits, you handsome bastard.â€
Clearly Moira’s a shy lass from the Middle East.
The fun thing about writing dialog is that you get to cull from conversations you’ve had, from voices you’ve heard. And I highly recommend that you do! Get a book and sit in the middle of the airport and listen. Or a mall. Anywhere where people are running their mouths. Pay attention to the world around you — that’s your best resource to draw from. I’m not saying to plagiarize someone’s life, but there are fascinating people in the world who can inspire you to create a character of your own.
But always remember this: get words on the page. You can always come back and layer more on after the fact, but the important part is to have something to work WITH.
Now, go get your word count! You only need 25 minutes today to get something accomplished. Everyone has 25 minutes. And hey, if you find yourself with more than that:Â keep writing.
And if you need encouragement or cheering on, say the word and I’ll dig out my pom poms. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t HAVE to write in a vacuum. <3