Writing Dialogue: How a conversation between characters can work on multiple levels

If you’ve been following my Friday exercise posts, you know that this month is all about description. What I haven’t discussed yet is how description is more than just telling the reader that the sky is blue, or Alice is blonde.

Dialogue can be a powerful way to show a reader what a character is like on the inside. What kind of formal education have they received? Are they ambitious? Where are they from, and what is their social class? How old are they? How are they feeling? How do they feel about the person they’re talking to? It’s description without being exposition, and it can be an effective tool.

But like everything else, when it’s done poorly, it can drive readers away from your story. Characters with accents that are difficult to read have a way of taking over and distracting readers from what’s really going on. Some people find it so distracting that they give up on the book entirely. Jim from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an example of this–Jim is a fantastic, colorful character, but a lot of people struggle with him because of his dialogue.

So what should you keep in mind when you’re writing dialogue? Here are a few things:

  • A sixteen year old girl is not going to talk like a sixty year old man. If you have characters of different age groups and genders speaking to one another, there should be some difference in the way they speak.
  • Someone who has a lot of education won’t talk like a high school dropout. However, there are people who don’t have much formal education but are very intelligent–this type of person isn’t always easy to portray, but can be a lot of fun to read if you do it right.
  • Find ways to limit tricky dialogue. You can have a character translate for one who doesn’t speak well, you can keep conversations short, you can have a character who’s an immigrant start out with a thick accent and gradually improve as they assimilate into local culture. You can rely on idioms and local words, or even slip in a word or two in the character’s native language. You can simply say in your exposition that a character has a thick accent rather than writing complicated dialogue. There are lots of ways to get around a thick accent without making your dialogue hard to read.
  • Read your dialogue scenes out loud, preferably to someone else. If the words don’t flow together in a way that sounds natural, or if your listener doesn’t like it, you probably need to try something different.
  • Limit words like uh, um, like, you know, or anything else people use as a placeholder when they’re trying to think of what they really mean. Even though it’s normal human behavior, it’s annoying to read. Sprinkle it in here and there, but you shouldn’t use these words as frequently as people do in real conversations. It puffs up your word count without adding any real substance to your story.
  • Listen to people. As you go about your day, pay attention to the people around you. What sort of phrases do they throw around? How often do they use slang or swear–and to whom? College students might be very informal with each other, but most of them don’t talk that way to their professors. Men engage in locker room talk with each other, but how often do they do that with women they want to impress? What do the kids say these days? Open up your ears and you might happen upon just the right phrase for that one scene. You never know.

Above all, you should remember to be consistent. Even if you have a character who code switches, they will probably do it in a way that is predictable or has a pattern. Be mindful of this when you’re writing, and go over everything with a fine-toothed comb when you edit. Consistency is the key to making almost anything work out in your favor.

I think that’s all that I have for today, but dialogue is such a rich topic that I’ll probably write other posts about it someday. Friday’s exercise touches on using dialogue, so I hope you’ll come back and check that out. As always, I hope you enjoyed today’s post. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to say, please feel free to comment!

Image credit: Dose Media, Unsplash.

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