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Writing Dialogue

I wanted to share some things I find I do when I write dialogue. Right or wrong, it seems to work for me and maybe it will for you. I have heard some people say they struggle with dialogue and for others, it comes easy. I would be interested in hearing other’s suggestions on this subject (or any of the other posts I have in this blog).

When I wrote my first novel and set it aside, I had no idea 13 years later what it even looked like. Once I dug it out and read it, I did notice one thing that stuck out at me. There was story and description, characters, and a move toward the main plot but there was very little dialogue in the 6-7 pages I had written. When I thought back, it was hard to remember everything but I did remember that I wrote minimal dialogue because I was not sure how to write proper dialogue for a story.

When I sat down again with that first story 13 years after writing that 6-7 pages, I started writing and adding dialogue for the characters, figuring I could rewrite it on my many, many upcoming edits. And I did, rewrote it many times over. Not just the dialogue but the story in general. When I approached the dialogue portion of the chapters, I started to think about how I converse and how others I know converse. Everyone does it a bit differently but thinking about how I would say something, helped me to write dialogue. Thinking of characters in movies with accents helped me to write certain characters in my books that carry accents of one sort or another.

By listening to myself and becoming more aware of how others talk, it has helped me to write dialogue. Paying attention during movies and television can help you to figure out how the character’s dialogue is written. Some are quiet talkers, some loud & boisterous while others step all over a person’s words in a conversation, talking over everyone else. If I run things through my head and read the dialogue out loud, I get a good feel for what it sounds like to my readers (or future readers). Everyone has their own little inflections when they speak, some stronger than others. They (or you) may pause at a certain place while speaking when another would just bowl right through the sentence much quicker.

Reading the dialogue out loud is recommended, to see if it has a flow when it’s spoken. I found that some of the dialogue I write looks great on paper and makes perfect sense but once I speak it out loud, it sounds awkward or not as natural as it appears on the page. By reading it out loud and making the changes, it helps to perfect the dialogue to a place where it sounds natural. In my writing group, we read things out loud and it is amazing to see how much any of the authors in class will change their dialogue or story points once they hear them out loud. Noses cringe or head in hands when they hear certain things out loud and maybe find it a bit embarrassing. They shouldn’t, this is all one big learning process and chances are, the same mistakes won’t be made twice.

Watch actors and see how they deliver lines. If it is an animated feature, listen to how each actor delivers their lines. Animation is a bit different and much more over the top but you never know what you might pull from any medium. Read a script from a movie you know or read along with the movie of the script as it is being acted out. Most scripts can be found online. The actor’s job is to come up with the best way to deliver the dialogue. Every actor is different in their delivery but it gives you a variety of ways in which people deliver their words to others. Of course, the ones that deliver the best get nominated for awards.

Another interesting exercise is to read a script from a movie you have not yet seen. Many scripts give emotional cues on how a line should be delivered but not all do that I have seen. Read some lines and see how you deliver them. Then watch the movie and see how the actor in the role of the lines you read delivers them. Different than the way you did it? I’m sure it probably is and it is an interesting exercise to see how the same line can be delivered in different ways. Sometimes, just by inflection, it can change the meaning of the line or a creative pause in the right place can make an impact.

There is a scene from the movie Eddie & The Cruisers where the band is rehearsing and discussing the delivery of the words in the song they’re playing. The lead singer, Eddie, is arguing this point with the bass player, Sal. Eddie then calls over Tom Berenger’s character, Frankie, who is standing around watching the band’s rehearsal, to ask his opinion. Frankie agrees with Eddie and brings up using a caesura, explaining it as “a timely pause, a strategic silence” to change the line of the dialogue. He then gives an example in the scene. It’s interesting to see the difference it can make with a simple pause in the right place. Here is a link to the scene on YouTube:

The bottom line, for me anyway, is to write how I talk. If it’s a character from a region I’m not familiar with (Louisiana, for instance), I will read and watch an actor deliver lines in the accent I’m imagining. Paying attention to the way words are spoken, picking up inflection, and picking up on the true accent sounds. As important as the accent is of a certain region, the words used can be even more important. Different areas of our country use words that may not be used anywhere else in the United States or possibly nowhere else in that given state, depending on the setting. These words are very important to use in your story to give it regional authenticity.

I try to keep any accents to a side character with little screen time. I have heard that accents (especially heavy ones) should be avoided as they can take the reader out of the scene. The reader will have to stop and concentrate to figure out unfamiliar spellings of everyday words. I’m sure established, successful authors would tell you to stay away from accents all together and just explain the accent in a sentence or two (he carried a heavy southern Mississippi drawl…). Probably good advice! But local words to the region in which your story takes place are important to keeping true to the story.

When it comes to dialogue, just keep it real. I find myself being more observant of how dialogue is written in movies and TV shows as well as how conversations roll with my friends and family. Think how you, or someone you know, would deliver what you’re having your character say and it should come across very naturally.

Happy reading, happy writing!


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