Creating effective dialogue, for some writers, can be the hardest aspect of writing. Sometimes it is mentally exhausting coming up with interesting dialogue for fiction, stage and screen projects. We hear dialogue every day; our friends, parents, films, TV shows, newscasts, interviews but when it comes to writing it – our confidence falls apart.
So how can we writers avoid this frustrating abyss?
We know that every human being has a particular way of speaking shaped by their physical environment, geographical location, family and friend influences, and many other factors. We use language to manipulate, encourage, condemn, speculate, contrive, inspire and express the experiences in our lives. Whether we communicate with words or hands, it shapes our journey and that of others.
The key to making dialogue sound 'real' is to listen to the conversations around you. Also known as eavesdropping, but you can eavesdrop without being nosy. Listen to the way people, (friends, strangers, customers) of all ages speak to each other and how it shapes the conversation and its eventual outcome. Did someone storm off? Cry? Laugh? Sitting on the bus, in the restaurant, park, train station – all of these locations are ripe for dialogue research.
Notice if it is clear ‘who’ is leading or dominating the conversation, what kinds of words are they using and the emotion behind it? Some people like to use uncommonly used words as they feel it makes them seem worldly. Others use them because of their love of language and the history behind such words. Even the inflection and cadence of the voice and delivery helps to define both the dialogue and the character.
Instead of trying to force the dialogue onto that blank page why not start with a general prose description or index cards of what you see happening? Do not worry about what to say at this time. Who is standing where, next to what? What are they wearing? Are they there to deliver sad news or for some clandestine activity? Is there a bad smell? Are they anxious? What is the weather like? When you have a clear idea of what is going to take place, your 'real' dialogue will come forth. Give your characters ample time to adapt to the environment you have placed them in and soon they will assist you with what they want to say and how they want to say it.
Another issue that you should keep in mind while writing dialogue is to try and not give away the entire plot or arc of the characters in one scene. We've all been guilty of telling our friends, enemies, and parents how much we want them to know about our lives. We skirt around the answers perhaps not really wanting to divulge about getting fired or messing up that interview. Then again, perhaps some of you don’t hold back at all, everything goes out on the ‘table’. Observe your characters; is one of them holding something back for themselves? Is it that they want to purposefully control the way they are being perceived? Or are they ashamed of the truth? Identifying the 'agenda' of your characters will help keep their dialogue real.
The problem many writers face is trying to describe 'how' a bit of dialogue is delivered; the old 'he said, she said' syndrome. Finding just the right adverb can lead to repeatedly knocking your head against the nearest wall. Again, setting up the scene in regards to sights, sounds, smells, and the scene’s agenda will assist you with that. You might not even need the 'she said, haltingly' or 'he grunted across the table'. The more specific you are in your choice of the words your characters are using will take away the stress of you pulling your hair out in trying to figure out 'how' they are going to say it.
"Do people really talk like that?"
When this question is asked it is almost always in reference to either a soap opera scene or they have just been exposed to an unfamiliar accent. Accents are very difficult to write into dialogue. If I am writing a character who is Irish, I will rent Irish films or Irish dialect tapes from the library. Accents are nothing to guess at if you want your dialogue to come across as authentic.
Some conversations can be like exchanging rapid fire while others might be like pulling teeth. Do not be afraid of that awkward silence. Often it gives your characters a chance to glance, shuffle their feet, clear their throat, look away – anything but converse – and that silence can have the same affect on the scene as any dialogue would.
It might seem obvious, but I have found that joining a small writing group (or starting your own) that reads work out loud is tremendously helpful and supportive. Also, attending local 'open mic' readings at libraries or coffee shops is very beneficial in giving you a sense of how your dialogue sounds. You can always ask the folks that are there to give you some feedback afterward. If you don’t want to read your work in front of other people just yet, ask a few friends to privately help you read through it. Offer them food and drink and it can turn out to be a monthly event.
Please remember, creating 'real' dialogue does not have to be intimidating. Know your characters, give them time to sit or walk around in the environment of the scene you have created for them before asking them to speak. And do your research by listening and observing how people talk to each other. This type of preparation will help your dialogue sound instinctual and real.