Some Thoughts on Dialogue

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I once read a book where the characters and their words clashed like navy socks with black shoes.

It was a tale of kings and palaces in a world of lavish customs and strictly held decorum. Yet, the dialogue between the two teenage protagonists—one of whom was royalty—was colloquial…and not in a good way. There were many awkward uses of “hey” and, if my memory can be trusted, even a use of “cool” (yes, as in, “Yeah, that sounds cool.”).

I wanted to like the story. I wanted to root for the characters and their inevitable happy ending. Yet, I stumbled over the unnatural dialogue the entire length of the book. Needless to say, it is not among my favorites.

The characters and their speech didn’t fit. I didn’t believe a young prince would speak as candidly and carelessly as he did in the world in which he lived. And as a result, I didn’t believe his character.

On the other side of the spectrum, I once read a novel where the prose was very casual, yet the characters spoke very formally to one another. In fact, this particular author chose to rarely include contractions in dialogue. A conversation between the protagonist and her best friend felt more like a political debate than a girls’ night out.

Simply put, voice matters—especially in dialogue.

My fellow editors just hosted a contest where each piece was assessed on the author’s use of voice. In fact, the contest’s “tagline,” if you will, was “Voice is King.”

So, how do you write believable dialogue brimming with a character’s voice?

Here are a few tips:

  • The character’s speech should sound like the character. As a general rule, a teenager should sound like a teenager. A prince should sound like a prince. And if they don’t, there should be a good reason why. For example, the teenager is a former spelling bee champ, and thus, has a larger vocabulary. Or the prince would rather charm young maidens than learn how to govern his kingdom. Otherwise, a run-of-the-mill teenager wouldn’t use the word “acrimonious,” and a dignified ruler wouldn’t walk up to a pretty girl and say, “Hey. What’s up?”
  • Read some of the greats. Sure, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about dialogue, but unless you’re writing a period piece, I’d steer clear. Reading modern plays or screenplays, however, is a different story. Plays and movies are mostly dialogue. Pick one up. Or take great notes during a movie. If that’s not your thing, John Green is pretty much the master of teenage wit. And J.K. Rowling successfully wrote thousands of pages in which three children became adults, so there’s a full spectrum to study. Jhumpa Lahiri also does this beautifully in The Namesake, a book that follows a young boy from birth well into adulthood.
  • Fill out a character questionnaire. The more you know about the character, the better you will be able to write his or her voice. Here’s one and two that I like.

For the record, writing dialogue can be really hard. After all, writing can—and often is—difficult. But if there is a story to tell, I believe it’s worth the blood, sweat, and tears. So, friends: battle on.

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