Dialogue is absolutely critical to the pace of the story and direction, so no wonder we all feel that extra bit of pressure to get it right, if not near perfect the first time out. But the problem is, how do you decide on the speech of each character? What you need to keep in mind is that each character will have their own habits, opinions, feelings, and discomfort in regards to almost everything. Yes, these people only exists in the world of paper and type, however, you need to make their existence worth while in their own fiction world. How you do this is through dialogue. Their pattern of speech, their pet peeves, the topics that are their passion, and their annoying habits. All of these things dictate how each character will speak to one another. Do they like each other? Do they hate each other? Are they in a position to grant favours or ask for one? Or better yet, what stage in life are they, and what external aspects, people, jobs etc. are effecting their pattern of thoughts?
That’s a long list of things to consider during a bout of sitting down and writing dialogue, isn’t it? But here is the worst part, that list is even longer. You also need to make sure each dialogue is contributing to the building of the story. That each dialogue is leading to a little more discovery about the characters or the story. Do try to restrain from writing down dialogue that are fruity and pretentious, and that just makes you sound like you are trying to out write yourself.
Here is a piece of advice that I was once given (and commended for) from an industry professional: Keep dialogue REAL.
What they meant by this was, keep the dialogue sounding as if that is how people speak in normal world. If the dialogue you write sounds nerdy/over the top/unbelievable for the real world, chances are those dialogue will come across the same in the fiction world. Why is it such an issue in the ‘fiction’ world? Well, because, dialogue is what places readers straight into the world of the characters, this is how we suspend their reality and for that moment, the readers feel like they are right there, an invisible participant in that make-belief world. A dialogue that sounds out of the norm will have the same effect as punching the reader in the face – it will take them out of that suspension.
The only time you can get away from veering out of the normal pattern of speech in real-time and real people is when you are doing a period piece, or a sci-fi interspace theme. Any other time, the characters NEED to speak as real people would.
My recommendation is that you keep it as simple as you can, as natural as you can when you are drafting that first session of dialogue. You need to let the dialogue flow organically. Editing is always there to save you later on, so don’t hold back. Boot grammar and punctuation and any other sense of guidelines to the back seat and off you go writing. Write as fast as you can and as hard as you can to capture the true essence of a scene or a run of dialogue first, then tinker with it later. Fussing over dialogue when you’re just starting to write the first draft is akin shooting yourself in the foot because you’re so busy trying to make it perfect that sometimes you miss brilliant moments of writing.
I’ll give you an example. Below is an excerpt from my current novel, Rule of Thirds, undergoing slight reconstruction, but I’d like you to read it for the flow of the dialogue. When I received the assessment on this particular novel, I was commended for keeping majority of the dialogue believable. What I’m hoping to show you all is that dialogue doesn’t have to be a fabulous creation of creative language and elaborate sentences. I would like you all to read the excerpt below and observe how it comes across to you. It’s not the best section of dialogue exchange in the book, however, I just wanted to show you that minimal is good too.
The premise of the excerpt is that, Elle, the main protagonist has just moved homes. Sequence, towards the beginning of the story.
The shrill ring of her cell phone brought a stop to her tears and sent her scrambling into the room, stumbling over suitcases in the dark. She dove next to the bed at her handbag, and fished out the phone with annoyance. “What is wrong with you?” Maya, a tiny figure on the bed lay sleeping undisturbed.
“I was worried. You hadn’t called yet. Can’t a mother check on her child?” Trish asked.
“Of course, Mum…”
“Can’t I call to see if you both have settled okay?” her mother interrupted. “You didn’t call as you’d promised!”
Elle tiptoed out of the room, pulling the door close behind. “I was a little busy, Mum. Do you realize what time it is?” she sniffled.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?” Trish asked immediately. “See, I told you, you can’t handle a move by yourself. I told you, Elle. Is Maya upset too? I bet she is, poor thing. First, her father, and now away from her grandparents…”
“Nothing’s wrong, Mum.” Elle interrupted. “She’s asleep, unless you woke her.”
“Then why are you upset?”
Elle leaned against the wall, “I’m just tried, Mum,” and lied.
“Well, you should get some sleep too, honey. Been a long and unnecessary day for you two. You know, your dad and I still think you shouldn’t have moved away, especially now. Maya needs her family. In fact, we can come tomorrow and bring you girls back home.”
Elle slid all the way to the floor and massaged her temples. She’d heard these concerns too many times before. “Mum, we’ve been over this time and time again. I told you, I need my own space. Let it go!”
“You’re my children.”
“And it’s my life and Maya is my child,” Elle answered, holding back her anger. “I’ll do what I feel is best for the both of us. For once in my life, Mama, let me do what I need to do.”
“And what’s that? Take yourself and my only grandchild away from home? Elle, you need help, you need dad and I to take care of you two.”
Elle clenched her teeth, “Mum, I don’t want you to take care of me, or my child. I am perfectly capable of doing it myself”.
“Blake used to take care of you, and now that he’s gone, how are you going to put food on the table, huh? How are you going to look after that child by yourself, Elle?”
“I’ll find a job.”
“Like the last time you found a job? Ellie, you had a nervous breakdown and Ethan and Bert had to come get you.”
“Mum, I don’t wanna talk about this. Not right now. I’m tired, I’m irritated, I smell,” and I miss Blake like crazy and wish he were here so I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you, she thought. “All I want to do right now is take a shower and get some sleep. Can I do that?”
“I’m worried about you.”
“Yeah? Well, worry a little less then.”
“I would if you two were safe here with me.”
“Mum, we are perfectly fine.”
“Yeah of course you are, all alone in that house, lonely. Of course you’re fine!”
“Fine, do what you want. Who are we to say anything? Good night then.”
The dial tone beeped in Elle’s ear as the call ended. “Good night” she whispered and sat, staring at the phone in her hand. She knew the argument was far from over and was tempted to hurl the phone across the hallway and watch it shatter. Maybe that’d stop her mother trying to control her decisions, and her life.
“If only it were that simple,” she pushed off the dusty floor. Bottom line, she was tired of people smothering her with concern.
Now that you’ve read that bit of glamorous writing (not)…how did you respond to it? To the flow of the dialogue? Did you find it easy to read? Did you think the characters sounded believable? What are your thoughts?
Ease of reading and believability of dialogue is the main thing that affect how your story reads.