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!