Revision: Dialogue

Dialogue’s easy to write, right?  You just write down what people say, right?  Well, if writers did that, there’d be an awful lot of boring dialogue in books.  Try eavesdropping on conversations around you, whether in a restaurant, riding a bus or train, or in a dentist’s waiting room.  I can guarantee that you will not hear anything like the dialogue you read in books.

"The Conversation" directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Dialogue is one of the hardest things to write.  It needs to read and sound authentic and natural while either revealing character or moving the story forward in some way.  At the same time, if a writer focuses too much on what the dialogue needs to do, then the dialogue will end up being wooden, expository-sounding and boring.

What’s a fiction writer to do?!

Listen.  Take in the rhythms of speech from the conversations around you.  Listen to people from different socio-economic classes, different countries or regions, to the different vocabularies and inflections.  Think about your characters.  Imagine them talking to you. 

Then write as if your eyes are closed and you’re listening to your characters talk in your ears.  Get it down on paper, then during the revision process, read it out loud.  Have someone else read it to you, or record yourself and play it back.  Your mouth will feel whether or not it’s natural.

Next, take a hard look at the character who’s speaking.  Do the words fit him or her?  For example, do you have an uneducated blue collar worker sounding like a Harvard professor?  The words spoken not only need to read as natural but also fit the character.  Educated people speak more often in complete sentences or phrases than those without education or with minimal education, for example.  How many syllables do the words have? 

Next, dialogue needs to serve a purpose within the story, i.e. it needs to either reveal character or move the story forward.  How does the dialogue reveal character in the context of the story?  Does it show how the character thinks, an attitude the character holds, or something about his childhood?  Or does the character’s dialogue reveal a plot point, a clue in a mystery, a decision that propels him into action and moves the story forward? 

During revision, with each new change, it helps to read the dialogue aloud again. 

Confession: I’ve done all of the above and still written awful dialogue.  It’s HARD.  Sometimes, I end up starting all over after going through all the above and then I have a better idea what the character will say in the scene.  I think there’s a friction between writing purposeful dialogue and making it natural.  The trick is to balance the two so that the dialogue comes out smooth, natural and not like a dead log the reader stumbles over.

I hope writing dialogue gets easier the more I do it, but so far…..

From the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"


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