Writing natural-sounding, engaging dialogue takes serious work. If it’s easy for us to read, that means it took a lot of effort for the writer to write.
What do I mean by easy, natural-sounding, and engaging? I mean dialogue that makes us really listen to the characters talk. Dialogue that makes us forget we’re reading and sink into the story as though it were our own life. Dialogue that initiates us into the communities the characters are a part of, as you’ll see in some of my examples below.
It’s only when we come across poorly-written dialogue that we stop and think to ourselves, ‘Huh. No one talks like that, do they?’ And then it’s harder to get immersed in the story and feel empathy for the characters.
Dialogue is hard to master, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.
In this post, I encourage you to start writing with your ears. We writers often do a great job of writing with our eyes. It’s easy for us to visualize our fictional settings (or like Whitney, draw them) and then call readers there with our descriptions.
But by writing with your ears, you’ll get your characters talking in a way that’ll make us listen to what they say, and most importantly, care about it.
A good way to start learning to write with your ears is listening carefully to conversations, as I recommending in my recent post, whether you’re involved in them or overhearing others. (*Eavesdrop with care, folks.) Try:
- Recording a conversation with a friend (with permission, of course). Then, play it back to hear the rhythms of the sentences, the tone, the accents, the words, the fillers, the pauses, everything. Then transcribe exactly what you hear, spelling pronunciation phonetically and including all the fillers and interjections.
- Paying attention to the sounds of consonants and vowels so that you can spell words phonetically. That way the way they sound to you will be the way they sound to readers. For instance, “honestly,” “honest-to-God,” and “honest-to-Gawd” would tell us different things about the speakers. They’re all trying to establish credibility. We should believe them because they are honest, right? More specifically, the “honest-to-God” speaker assumes the listener is familiar with Judeo-Christian traditions, while the “honest-to-Gawd” speaker is using a region-specific pronunciation that we might associate with rural settings.
- Paying attention to the structure and rhythms of spoken sentences. Learn to admire vernacular expressions and appreciate the musicality of everyday speech.
- Practicing new dialogue, modeled on your recordings, text messages, and social media chats. What characters say must sound natural, as well as have bearing on your plot.
Want to learn from literary examples?
Read this example from Toni Morrison’s first novel, a work of literary fiction, The Bluest Eye (1970):
“Three quarters of milk. That’s what was in that icebox yesterday. Three whole quarts. Now they ain’t none. Not a drop. I don’t mind folks coming in and getting what they want, but three quarts of milk! What the devil does anybody need with three quarts of milk?”
If you read this passage aloud, you probably noticed that the speaker’s voice inflection matches her frustration. We can see this emotion in the italicized words, as well as in the repetition of the exact volume of milk that’s missing, “three whole quarts.”
Check out this example from Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl (2002), the first installment in a YA series:
“And don’t forget my cherry!” Vanessa yelled after her as Ruby left to get the drinks.
“Your sister’s awesome,” Serena said.
Vanessa shrugged. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s a pain in my ass, though. I mean, everyone’s always like, ‘Ruby’s so cool’ and I’m like, ‘Hello?'”
Serena laughed. “I know what you mean. My older brother–he goes to Brown, and everybody loves him. My parents are always so into everything he does, and now that I’m back from boarding school it’s like, ‘Oh, we have a daughter?'”
What’s important here is not so much these teens’ resentment of their “cool” siblings, but that (1) they are fluent in humor, profanity, and fillers, and (2) they express ideas by quoting what they’ve heard others say.
Imagine these passages without the inflections I pointed out. Like, what if Morrison’s speaker said “three whole quarts” only once? Or, what if von Ziegesar’s speakers didn’t quote others’ admiration of their siblings? We wouldn’t gain as much insight into what these characters notice and remember. Nor would we empathize with them as easily.
Examining these passages, we understand that Morrison and von Ziegesar are excellent listeners who think very carefully about how to write dialogue. For them, characters’ speech patterns must be appropriate to their social groups. The Bluest Eye depicts a working-class black community in 1941 Loraine, Ohio, while Gossip Girl depicts Manhattan private school teens. By writing dialogue with such distinctive sounds, Morrison and von Ziegesar initiate us into very distinctive social groups, even though our lives may be vastly different from the lives of these characters.
So, what’s next?
Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get the hang of the techniques I’ve shared. As I wrote above, I work every day on improving how I write dialogue. I enjoy watching my characters become more human-like. I’m pleased to say that my narration is improving, largely as a result of my dialogue efforts.
If you have concerns, check out Get Your Characters Talking, Part II, a short post addressing some misgivings authors may have about how characters should sound.
And finally, I’d love to hear about your methods for improving the dialogue in your novel. Share examples, tips, and questions in the comments section below!