Easy Talking

Misty MasseyMisty Massey
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In comments last week, Sagablessed asked “I would ask one of you how make dialogue in the ‘real-world’ seem so easy.”   So I thought I’d do my best to answer.  As you all should know by know, everyone’s process is different, so all we can really do here is offer suggestions to hopefully guide you to finding your own way.  I hope the others will join in with their suggestions as well. 

For me, much of my writing happens in my head long before I ever put hands on keyboard, and that means that I’m hearing conversations between my characters.  I do my best to transfer the exchanges I hear onto the page, with attention paid to particular word choices and cadence. Everyone has his or her own way of speaking.  Some people’s voices are more heavily accented than others.  Some are singsong, and others are flat.  There are clear differences in where a speaker was raised that are solely indicated by the words they use to describe things.  For example, when I want a carbonated beverage to drink, I’ll ask for a soda, but my New York cousins want pop.  Same stuff, but clearly not sold in the same city.  If you want to make a character’s voice sound authentic, I would avoid attempting to recreate the actual sounds by respelling words to phonetically resemble the accent.  Unless you’re very comfortable with how to pull this off, you run the risk of making your character sound like a caricature.  Let me show you what I mean.

Grandma snapped, “Y’awl hain’t otter go out efter dark.”  OR

Grandma’s voice rang from the kitchen, sharp as a raccoon’s claw, “Y’all shouldn’t go out after dark.”

Yes, the sounds are more easily communicated in the first sentence, but that’s where it stops.  First, the intentional misspellings will slow a reader’s eye, forcing him to stare at the sentence an instant longer than necessary.  Second, it looks as if the writer has only ever heard country people talk in movies, which generally get accents wrong anyway.  You don’t want to alienate readers from a particular region by making their speech look silly.  In the second example, using the raccoon claw analogy implies a country upbringing, and lends the air to Grandma’s words without being so obvious.  Should you avoid trying to write dialect at all times?  Of course not.  As I said, once you’ve gotten used to writing dialogue that flows and sounds comfortable, you can attempt to write dialect.  But until you know what you’re doing, don’t.

So you’ve recognized that characters have their own accents and cadences, but what about making a conversation flow the way it does between real people?  One way to do that is to read it out loud.  Read to a willing listener, and then pay attention to their reaction.  If you can get a buddy to read it for you, so you can listen, even better.  It’s easy to spill two thousand words of dialogue onto the page and never hear where it’s stilted or strange, until you hear it being spoken.  One thing I’ve noticed with new writers is a reluctance to use contractions.  I’m, don’t, can’t, won’t…these are all perfectly legitimate words, but for some reason people don’t use them.  It’s the kind of thing you might not notice right away on paper.  If you’ve seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, think about Data.  He didn’t have the ability to form contractions, so his speech was always a little uptight.  In daily speech, we humans fling contractions around like rice at a wedding.  Avoiding contractions in your writing makes your characters sound overly formal.

Mary sighed.  “I do not think I will be ready in time.  You will have to leave without me, and I will join you there.”  OR

Mary sighed.  “I don’t think I’ll be ready in time.  You’ll have to leave without me, and I’ll join you there.”

Even if you think you’ve used a lot of contractions in a paragraph, you probably haven’t.  Save the formal constructions for more emphatic sentences. 

Okay, so there are a few thoughts to help you along.  If you have more specific questions about dialogue, you know where the comments are.  Ask away!

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14 comments to Easy Talking

  • I always read my work aloud. You tend to hear things that you would miss when reading it back in your head. I’ve even gone so far as to record myself reading it and playing that back. I would also say it’s very much about paying attention to other dialogue around you. I’m sort of wallflowerish by nature and I tend to listen to the conversations around me, at times waiting for something to be said where I can interject and possibly join in. You can learn a lot about the way people talk and the way certain personalities talk by listening to conversations. I’ve been told that I have pretty natural sounding dialogue in my writing. For all that I don’t talk much, I like the nuances of dialogue. I type far more than I talk because I get time to think about what I’m saying. ;)

    As far as contractions, I think somewhere down the line there’s been someone saying that it’s bad to use too many and some new writers have taken that literally and too far. But we DO use them a lot when we speak, and cutting them from your dialogue does indeed make it feel unnatural in the flow and causes the eye and mind to stumble because our brains are so used to them.

  • Thanks for this timely post, Misty! I do have another question for you, which isn’t about the actual words characters say but the description or action or exposition that goes around the dialogue. In first drafts, especially, I end up with LOTS of dialogue in a scene and it feels like I’m writing a screenplay rather than a novel. How often should I cut in with something other than dialogue? How much “other” should I write? I know there’s more than one way to approach this and that it depends on the characters, the scene, etc., but any general tips on how to break up long stretches of dialogue?

  • I try to remember that my goal in writing dialogue is to make my characters sound the way I WISH people spoke in real life. I want natural sounding dialogue, which means using contractions as you point out, and throwing in hints of dialect and colloquialism. But I don’t want the repetition, the “ums” and “you knows” and stuff like that, at least not a lot of it. If you listen to human conversation you quickly realize that we are remarkably inarticulate creatures. An exact transcript of most conversations is not a pretty thing. And so, for me, good dialogue has a vague suggestion of that “natural” effect, but with far more grace and concision.

  • sagablessed

    Misty: can I say how touched I am you noticed my query? Another reason I love this site so much. You guys really take note and offer us way to improve. THANK YOU!

    Daniel: like the idea, but I hate the sound of my own voice. So that is not an option for me.

    SiSi: Two ways to break it up. One is to use a familiar action by the character action to punctuate dialog inbetween wording. “I just…” her kerchief daubed at a tear “…don’t think I can go on.”

    Another is the note charater’s observations. “I just don’t think I can go on.”
    She watched his face contort as a single crocodile tear slid down her cheek.
    “But darling………{what ever other dialogue}”

    Interrupt it with outside action.
    “I just don’t think I can go on,” she whimpered.
    “Darling, what can I- ”
    A passing ambulance cut him off. She sighed with relief as her time to concoct something plausible was extended.
    In the following silence she said, “But he was my world,” as her handkerchief daubbed at a tear.

    Corny bs writing, but I hope the examples help.

  • sagablessed

    Sorry, SiSi..three. After a 16 hours at work my brain is fried.

  • And to add to saga’s message to SiSi, quite frequently, a natural pause is added in the reader’s mind when you break up a sentence of dialogue with an action. It can add emotion or tension, just depending upon where you break it. I tend to break early in the sentence just so that the reader knows where the focus has shifted, but it works just as well for an emotional pause in the dialogue. I sometimes get irked when I thought I had the right character and voice in my head, only to find it’s a completely different character an entire sentence, or even two, later. ;)

    And the action doesn’t have to be in the middle; it can be at the beginning. As long as you’re clear on the focus when you do so.

    Reginald folded his arms over his barrel chest, brows knitting to the point where they could have been one. “Just what are you suggesting, Agent Vine?”

    Or,

    Brows knitting to the point they could have been one, Reginald folded massive arms over a chest that could stave off a sledgehammer, his tone promising pain. “Just what are you suggesting, Agent Vine?”

    There’s no hard set rule, really for how much or how little action or physical cues to add, but balance in all things. Just as David mentioned about removing the “ums” and “uhs” and “you knows,” adding too much movement, motions, and gestures can make the characters seem like fidgeting bundles of nerves, unless they’re supposed to be, yet adding too little can make the dialogue fall flat.

    Least, that’s this unpublished guy’s loose change…and I had to find it in the couch cushions first. ;)

  • [...] those who are paying attention well know—Magical Words, and Misty Massey’s post in particular, Easy Talking where she talks about writing dialogue. It got me thinking about doing my own, hopefully [...]

  • But then again, Misty already showed that… Heh! And I didn’t work 16 hours. Ah well. ;)

  • Megan B.

    Some great tips here! Here are some of the tricks and rules of thumb I use:

    I try to have a good idea of how each character’s voice sounds, how they speak, and how they move when they speak. Usually this is something I learn as I go, so first-draft dialog needs to be tweaked or changed entirely in revision. But once you know your characters, if you can see and hear them in your head, it’s easier to tell if the dialog sounds natural (in general and for the individual characters). For instance, one character in my WIP speaks more formally, and I hear him with a British accent. For him it’s natural to say something like “perhaps.” Other characters using that word would sound wrong.

    I also try to keep in mind that people speak in sentence fragments sometimes, or run-on sentences. They interrupt each other. They cut themselves off or their voice may trail away before the thought is complete. And sometimes a piece of dialog could be nothing but body language. For example (just made up off the top of my head):

    “I don’t think you understand,” said Tony.
    Jane raised an eyebrow at him and cross her arms.
    Tony sighed. “Okay, maybe that’s not fair of me.”

  • Of course, in the real world, we almost never hear dialog as it appears in books (or in movies). Real people um and err and like and you know — a *lot*. It can be useful to transcribe real conversations, then clean them up into “book” conversations. I’ve tried that exercise, first “cleaning up” real speech to be proper and grammatic and *correct*, then cleaning it up to sound like real people. After the first few minutes, trends became very clear (and, er, real-life tics became, um, almost unbearably, you know, annoying!)

  • Thanks for all the great tips and exercises, everyone!

  • Mindy, so true! I’ve occasionally run into stories in which the author decided to write his dialogue au naturel, and it does nothing but make the reading uncomfortable. I do love the idea of cleaning up the real conversations into book conversations.

    Sisi, I usually go a couple of lines before adding a little narrative. Something like this:

    “Don’t you think it might be a good idea to find out what’s really happening, instead of sailing off half-cocked and under the wrong wind?”
    “What are you going on about?”
    “He won’t leave today. I guarantee it.”
    “And how can you be so sure?”
    Olympia tossed a lock of hair back over her bared shoulder. “I’ve lived on this island a long time, darling, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the government never does anything quickly.”

    You can also slow down a conversation with more narrative between each line. If something heavy is happening, or the POV character is coming to a conclusion, slowing things down is a useful tool to keep the reader’s attention focused where you want it.

  • Razziecat

    I’m so glad contractions were mentioned! I find it very unnatural and distracting when a character doesn’t use them, especially in very casual conversation.

    I’m lucky in that, at least when I’m writing my space opera stuff, the characters’ conversations often pop into my head, complete; I know them that well. I still revise and tweak their dialogue, though. And in fantasy, my characters don’t do that often, so I have to work harder.

    A couple of things I’ve learned from great authors: Dialog should not only convey information, but move the action along. Half a page of two people discussing their favorite color gets boring fast. Even if you need a brief respite between action, their conversation should be relevant to the story.

    Also notice what words you choose, and whether they’re appropriate for the person who’s speaking. I recall a book by a very good, very well known author (a book I enjoyed very much) in which a character used the word “uxorious” to describe another character. Go ahead, look it up–I’ll wait :) The word was an accurate description of the other character, but the person speaking it was an uneducated chambermaid. It just didn’t seem to fit the way such a person would speak. It threw me right out of the story. So while I recommend keeping a dictionary and a thesaurus at hand, I suggest not mining either one for unusual words unless you have a very good (plot- or character-related) reason to do so. Of course, don’t “dumb it down” either. If your Harvard-educated professor uses the word “ain’t” frequently, the reader will need to know why!

  • Razzie–I would thumbs up, or otherwise like your post if I could and second all of it. :D