Today, Inklings, we’re talking about talking.
Naturalizing your dialogue, to be specific.
Every writer has their own unique voice when they’re writing, because every person has their own dialect, inflections, voice patterns, and even vocabulary or colloquialisms. This is part of what makes language so diverse and gratifying to play with. You can use a variety of letters and sounds, and even make up your own!
But despite this, many writers struggle when it comes to making their characters speak, and if you have this problem, trust me, you are not alone. Dialogue between imaginary characters is hard, dude.
There are books upon books and blogs and lessons and classes and conferences about creating awesome dialogue, but there is a much, much simpler method of amping your character’s convos up to enjoyable levels.
1. Listen to conversations around you.
Go to your local coffee shop, grocery store, park. Sit for a while and hear how people speak. Pay attention to how they phrase things, or what inflection they use. Are they guilty of “up talk” or “vocal fry?” Do they over use the word “like” or “uhm” or “you know” because they are struggling to piece their words together? Do they have a tic, like beginning every sentence with “Okay, so…”, or just jump in and talksofastyoucan’tevencatchup? Believe it or not, these are all things you can incorporate (within reason) in your own writing. To make dialogue in writing believable, you have to know speaking in real life. You have to understand speech patterns—but this isn’t as hard as it sounds.
As human beings, we are actually significantly gifted at picking up body language and tone in speech, and now, it’s your great difficulty to translate that innate knowledge into your book.
2. USE. CONTRACTIONS.
As I’ve stated many times before, one of the easiest ways to make your language flow is an extraordinarily simple one. When you’re talking to a family member, do you say everything so prim and proper that you could be an extra in Pride and Prejudice? Chances are, no, no you don’t. Everyone has their “professional” voice and their “relaxed” voice. Professional you might be more precise, but chances are you won’t be able to cut those syllables with a chisel, right? Relaxed voice is how you normally speak, when you’re alone or with comfortable acquaintances. Putting a sense of “relaxed” voice in dialogue is a fantastic way of making your reader “say” it in their own version of relaxed voice, which makes it flow smooth like butta, baby. And the best way to do this? Use contractions.
“Do not take that bag out of the closet! If I have to look for it, I will end up late to practice!”
“Jer, we are going to the store. Is there anything you will need me to pick up?”
“I cannot forget to put all of the laundry in the dryer when I get home.”
“But Barbara, there is nothing you can do. He told you he does not want any help.”
“Don’t take my gym bag out of the closet! If I’m late to practice because it’s missing, I’ll be pissed!”
“Jer, we’re going shopping. You need anythin’?”
“Aww, crap! I gotta remember to switch the laundry over when I get back.”
“Barb, you can’t do anything. He said he doesn’t want help.”
Write how people speak, not how a narrator would dictate a sentence.
3. Read EVERYTHING aloud. ALL OF IT.
Go and read a portion of a book out loud. Doesn’t have to be dialogue or even your own work; just pick something and go. Did you find yourself sliding over the pronunciation of certain letters in favor of your relaxed voice? Like saying ‘don’ instead of don’t? Do you perhaps soften your “r” to the point where ya sound Bostonian? Did you read it fast, or slow? Did it jive with your internal voice, or did you find yourself pausing and rereading portions so you could reassess the tone? Reading written words aloud will strengthen your understanding of dialogue and language in general. Pay attention to your own accent. Are you from the south? Did you know that southern accents have different dialects depending on where you live? Midwestern tones can seem southern, but have subtle differences, and west coast people sound completely different from northerners and southerners altogether? A Bostonian accent is drastically different than one in New York, and both are distinguishable from New Jersey or New England.
Hearing words out loud from different regions can really help you develop a style of writing conversations that will give everyone an individual voice. If you want your characters to pop, give them different “vocal” affectations. Learn to recognize and incorporate different accents, dialects, and parts of speech in your dialogue to give your character, well… character.
4. Use slang and colorful (not necessarily vulgar) language.
My siblings and I grew up in northern Florida surrounded by country folk and surfer dudes, but my mother is from New York, so we picked up a lot of slang from her that wasn’t common in that area. I ended up pronouncing forest as “fah-rest” or orange as “ah-renge”, and we abbreviated “shut up” so that it became a single word (“shaddup!”) and we called unidentified bits of paper or fluff on the floor “schnibbles.” At the same time, I was developing a touch of a lazy drawl, and getting a bit too relaxed around g’s, if you know what I’m sayin’. I was comfortable with “surfer talk”—which is its own thing entirely. I found out that I would specify tacos at Taco Bell the southern way of “the 89 cent” ones—yes, children, tacos did used to be that cheap. We don’t lie when we say the 90s were a wonderful time—or when telling someone to leave “something” alone, I would often jam the words together to pronounce it as “Lea’ that alone.” I fought against using “ain’t,” although I will admit that it has slipped in conversation at least twice. Language is fun! Use various methods to make yours enticing.
5. If it doesn’t need it, DON’T MAKE THEM TALK.
Sometimes, the best things are left unsaid, right? Well, occasionally. In dialogue, “a picture is worth 1000 words” takes on extra meaning. If you can show us what’s going on without your characters talking us through it, then do it. When you’re writing a screenplay, dialogue is a precious commodity. You seriously have to consider what words are going on that page because you are so limited with page space. Some of my favorite parts of a movie are where the characters say absolutely nothing because the action speaks so well for them. If your character is talking when they really should be quiet, remove it. See how well silence can direct a scene for you.
Pixar actually does a fantastic job nixing dialogue in favor of showing action—think of the beginning of the movie Up, or actually don’t, because I do not need to cry right now. How about a film like Wall-E, instead? The action carried so well that they were able to forego dialogue in HUGE portions of the film, and one of the sweetest moments ever is when Wall-E first meets Eve:
Now imagine if he had been giving her verbose, expository dialogue about how he’d been fulfilling his mission to box all the trash on Earth.
When in doubt, go without!