Dialogue guide part 1: Human speech
Writing great dialogue is a difficult task, especially if you don't really know what makes
great dialogue great. In this guide I will aim to help you figure this out.
There are quite a lot of things you have to pay attention to, but once you get the hang of it all you'll have no trouble writing great dialogue soon enough.
Do note that I am not a real writer myself, at least not one who writes all my stories down. I tend to keep them locked inside my head (yes, I'm probably weird :P). But my point is that everything in this guide is based on my experiences with stories, my opinions and a little research here and there.
This guide is part 1 of 3 in total. In this first part we'll examine how people in the real world talk and how we use that to create dialogue in stories. This may seem simple, some points might even seem obvious, but it's important to realize to big differences between dialogue in fiction and reality.
On top of that I've also written down some exercises you could do to help develop your skills and to put the information in these guides to use. If nothing else, they could provide you with a fun way to kill some time.
The way we speak.
Everybody speaks in a different way, obviously. But it's important to know the difference, whether subtle or obvious, when writing dialogue for a specific character. A character's speech will be influenced by a lot of elements, just like our own. This includes age, accents, upbringing (posh, poor, etc.), the time we live in, our peers, our position in society, speech impediments and so on.
Taking all this into consideration not only makes sure your character will sound more authentic within the universe of your story, it will also help making each character's speech feel unique, which is what you want in most cases.
Failing to make a character sound authentic will take the reader out of the story, we clearly don't want that. As an example, let's say we ask a young child to give an opinion on some type of food. If the child doesn't like it, replies you'd expect from a child would be "I don't like it.", "Bleh!" or, if the child is particularly blunt, "That's disgusting!". You wouldn't expect a child to say "Well, I quite like the taste, but the texture of it is completely revolting."
Know your place.
It's also important to keep a character's position in mind, which includes their current place of living, the place they come from, their place in society, their time period and their relationship to whomever they're speaking with, among other things.
Somebody who grew up in the UK won't immediately speak like somebody in Australia after moving there. A character will likely have (remnants of) an accent, a specific manner of speaking (speed, intonation, etc) and a specific vocabulary from a previous place of living.
Time period, place in society and the relationship between the two speaking characters is
also important. Somebody from the 1920's speaks differently from somebody today and students will
generally speak more politely to a teacher than to their friends.
Being rude to an upper class person in one period of time might just result in you being seen as a filthy commoner, while in a different period of time (or setting) it might result in a beating or the end of your life.
For example, in a medieval setting you'd address your king with 'sire' or a similar term. If the king would ask you to do something you'd say "Right away, sire.", not "Sure thing, boss." This is a pretty obvious example, but it illustrates how speech and customs have changed and continue to change over time.
What we say in real life.
The biggest difference between fictional and real conversations is that real conversations are usually very boring, at least to those not involved in the conversation. The average conversation isn't interesting to listen to because we use 'uhm' a lot, we use slang which is often very specific to a region or generation, we don't always let the other person finish, we often can't think of a word, we change subjects all the time and we often use small talk.
None of this makes for particularly interesting dialogue, so even though it's realistic in terms of how we speak, it's best to scrap it or condense it into a short, informative sentence or two. Take the following conversation for example:
"How's your cat doing? She just turned one didn't she?"
"Yes, she turned one last Tuesday. She's still growing too."
"Oh, that's good, I think."
"Yeah. We're giving her different food now. It's supposed to be better for her."
"Really? What brand are you using? I use CatBrand right now, it seems pretty good."
"That's what we used before, but we switched to BrandCat."
"Don't think I've heard of that, but I'll make sure to look for it."
And so on.
Boring! Nobody wants to read two people having a meaningless conversation, but that doesn't
mean meaningless conversations never happen in a story, they do. However, instead of writing
them out you simply state they had the conversation.
"We talked about our cats for hours on end. By the time we were done it was already midnight."
Now the whole boring conversation isn't just much shorter, we even added information to it. Turn a few hours worth of boring conversation into a few seconds worth of good reading, don't turn a few seconds of reading into an experience which seems like a few hours.
What we say and how we say it is affected by the way we feel. However, it doesn't just affect
what and how we say things, it also affects are body language.
Body language is a major part of how we communicate, even if we don't realize it. The same sentence will be experienced completely differently when said by a bored character compared to a happy and energetic one or a frustrated one.
Whenever we talk we expose ourselves to somebody. We share our opinions and feelings on certain subjects and in doing so we open ourselves up to potential criticism. This is why we don't always speak the whole truth and why we tell lies. Usually it's some form of protection, like preventing hurt feelings, not letting somebody know your true intentions or just a matter of being (seen as) polite.
Use body language to your advantage when writing dialogue. Body language can show the reader the true intentions of a character, whether a character is in control of their emotions, whether a character is merely pretending to be one way and a whole lot more.
Another big part of human speech is subtlety. We rarely say what we want in a blunt and honest way. Instead we try to steer a conversation into a direction with
the intention of getting the information we want.
A great example of this is the way we try to find out if somebody is single and if that person might be interested. We usually don't ask 'Are you single?' straight away, if at all. Instead it'll go something like the following example.
"You're in a good mood today."
"Am I? I guess I am feeling pretty good."
"Yeah, you look like you're in love."
"What, really? Nah, I'm not in love."
It's a basic example, but it illustrates how people get answers without directly asking for it. It happens in almost every conversation in real life
and it's a huge part of great story telling. Not only does it make a conversation far more interesting, it also makes the reader curious to what happens
However, this doesn't mean you have to be subtle every time you write a line of dialogue. Everybody is different, including fictional characters. Some people are masters of subtlety, some people are bold and direct.
So we've covered some of the larger aspects of how people speak, but to write great dialogue you have to spice it up a notch. As I mentioned, real
conversations are boring, they're too long and, in terms of story progression, lack information.
Your dialogue needs to reflect real life, but make it sound better and more interesting.
To accomplish this you'll have to keep quite a lot in mind, but I'll be delving deeper into the nitty-gritty bit in the next parts of this guide. But I will leave you with a few points to follow:
- Dialogue has to advance the plot and add to the story.
- Dialogue has to provide information, but not too much at once.
- Don't make dialogue longer than it needs to be, if you can make it shorter, do so.
- Dialogue should flow, just like narration should. Don't let either break the flow of the other.