The Secret to Writing Dialog

BowersThumbby John Bowers

During my first year in college (which was also my last year in college) I took a creative writing course; only three of those enrolled were regular day students – the rest were older people with families and jobs. It was an informal class in which we talked a lot about writing and everyone shared stories and chapters, which were read aloud. I expected my writing to be a big hit, but I had a surprise in store.

“I’m amazed at your dialog!” one man told me. “It sounds so natural.”

“What’s your secret?” another lady asked.

Secret? I didn’t know there was a secret. I was telling a story, the characters spoke, and I wrote it down. I was more amazed than they were, that anyone would have trouble writing dialog.

But apparently some people do. So what’s the “secret”?

Listen to How People Talk

The only “secret” I know to writing natural dialog is to listen when people talk. It doesn’t matter what they say, but how they say it. In real conversation, people often drop words that they feel aren’t necessary. When invited to dinner, instead of saying “Of course we’ll come to dinner”, they are more likely to say “Sure”. Instead of saying “yes”, they are likely to say “yup”, “yeah”, or “uh-huh”.  These are no-brainers…you probably do the same thing.

When writing dialog, it isn’t necessary to flesh out the speech. Doing so, in fact, is more likely to make your character sound stilted. If you aren’t sure how a character should speak on the page, just listen to how people talk in real life. Try to imitate that. (I do it with conversations in my head, and after I write them down, if they aren’t quite right, I tweak them.)

Having said that, here’s a warning – real people often speak with lots of starts and stops, and say “uh” a lot. You don’t want that in your dialog, because it’s difficult to read and doesn’t contribute to the story. For example:

“We, uh, drove down to Clear Lake on Saturday…or was it Sunday? I don’t remember. Martha, was it Saturday or Sunday? Anyway, uh, we got there about three o’clock and-no, wait, it was closer to four, because I saw the time and temperature sign at the Savings and Loan and it…yes, it was four-fifteen…or maybe I’m confusing that with the first time we went down there…oh, hell, I don’t remember, but anyway – what was I talking about?  Oh, yeah, we saw Jimmy’s Little League game.”

Obviously, most of that is unnecessary, unless you are deliberately pointing out what a scatter-brain your character is. Keep your dialog on track, unless you want to annoy the reader. Let the character speak what needs to be said and nothing more.

Dialog Should Fit the Character

One difficulty for many writers (and I struggle with this) is that not all characters sound alike. Let the dialog fit the character’s personality. If the character is a clergyman, chances are he doesn’t use much profanity. If she’s a cop, she probably does. If he’s a soldier, he almost certainly does.

There’s more to it than that. A nerdy computer geek is likely to pepper his dialog with references to bits, bytes, and subroutines.  A high school cheerleader may talk about clothes and boys. Elderly Aunt Gertrude is likely to discuss how the current generation (unlike her generation) is going to hell in a hand basket. (These are stereotypes, of course, and you don’t want too many stereotypes in your novel, but use them as a guideline.)

Once you have established a character’s personality, her language should remain consistent. If two characters are having a conversation, the reader should be able to identify each speaker simply by the way they talk, without you ever identifying which one is speaking. In my novel, The Fighter King, Oliver Lincoln III uses profanity almost every breath; Rosemary Egler never says anything stronger than “Gosh!”…except once. And when she does break that rule, it speaks volumes about her stress level.

Forget About Carnegie

Aside from people who have taken the Carnegie course on how to butter people up, real people almost never use each others’ names in conversation. While writing Fighter King, I caught myself doing just that.  When Oliver and Henry were talking about Vega 3, they used each others’ names constantly.

“I tell you, Henry, there’s going to be a war between Sirius and Vega!”

“How do you know that, Oliver?”

“Come on, Henry, you get FIA reports. You probably knew it before I did.”

“Oliver, even if I did, I couldn’t talk to you about it. It’s classified.”

And then I realized what I was doing. People often use names when they greet each other. “Hey, Henry, how’s it going?” “Not too bad, Ollie, how about you?” And then, they may talk for two days and never mention each other’s names again.

Neither should your characters.

In A Nutshell

Writing dialog, like writing anything, is not a science, and no matter how you do it, someone will criticize it. Just try to make it as natural as possible, keeping in mind your characters’ personalities. Listen to how people talk. Pay attention to those patterns when writing your dialog. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it sounds forced or stilted,  or in any way unnatural, change it. If you still aren’t sure, get advice from other writers. You can find plenty of writer’s forums and workshops on the web.

If none of that works, shoot me an email. (Or, as Gene Autry said in a really old movie: “If you’re ever in peril, call me.” (How’s that for natural dialog!)  Jbowers66 At comcast Dot net.

John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.

He’s also published a mid-grade book, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.

All of his works are available on Amazon.com

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