Stuck for Speech?
Tackling the Difficulty of Writing Realistic Character Dialogue
So...an eon ago or so, I went to one of my first ever writers' groups and, despite being petrified of sharing, I got up and read my extract aloud while everyone in the circle was doodling comments all over my paper. My hands shook and I almost lost my place a fair few times whilst being distracted by wondering why the fella in the blazer was frowning so sternly down at my poor, quaking paper?? Was it really THAT bad?? Happily and surprisingly, I got some alright feedback for my first time - with one person liking my descriptions of surroundings and a few people sticking up for my ability to make a character likable and nearly everyone wanting to know what happened next... BIG sigh of relief and I sat down ready to melt back into invisibility. Then the guy in the blazer wearing the catastrophic frown spoke up and asked me, "Are your characters friends or not? They don't seem to be speaking to each other at all. Why don't they speak?"
I'm going to share some hints to tackle this and to de-robot your dialogue. I'm no expert - more experienced in being very flawed in this area - but here are some ideas to try along with me!
(1) Read some plays!
A bit obvious I know, but whether you write short stories or novels, you need to read some plays even if they're not "your thing." Plays are the ultimate challenge in writing good dialogue! There's no escaping dialogue because there are no distractions of paragraphs of description and paragraphs of thought processes of characters - pure dialogue! I could never do it! The idea horrifies me! But you have to admire the people that can and they are the best people to learn from, as a good playwright has honed the ability to reproduce dialogue in such a way that it powers a whole story. Two of my favourites have to be Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," because these playwrights manage to convey SO much and SO MANY different characters' voices in such clipped sentences.
(2) Watch some tele!
This is THE perfect excuse to get into your PJs and watch some Grey's Anatomy! Guilt-free tele because it's research!! Screenwriters too know their dialogue better than most and you might as well learn from the best. Think back to shows where you've been hooked on certain characters and why you gravitated to those characters and watch them again! Some personal favourites of mine to be inspired by would be Mr. Omar from "The Wire" and Captain Mal Reynolds from "Firefly." The first character saying so much with so few words and the second character being a bringer of banter and that (for me) is REALLY hard to write. Go revisit some of your beloved TV friends.
(3) Be a nosy-parker!
My granny would not be proud of me for this one, but I 100% support being a bit nosy and eavesdropping in a caf or on the subway or wherever. Listen to some real people talk and you'll find out that most people don't talk the way they (or you) write. In most scenarios, they don't brainstorm and then think about what they're going to say and then review and edit their words. Take a sampling of the people around you for inspiration. I wouldn't go so far as to record them or anything, but just let them wash over you and notice some of the next few ideas:
(4) Stick to shorter sentences!
There are a ton of blogs and books on writing that support this idea of "Short and sweet." In some of my nosy sessions in a cozy cafe, I noticed that it's true. People say an awful lot with very little. We have a ton of shorthand in conversations and we don't typically explain everything in paragraphs or info-dump in speeches. Saying a lot is NOT the same as writing long sentences. Keep your sentences for dialogue shorter than the sentences you would use for description and setting the scene. Monologues and speeches are rarer than Shakespeare would have you believe, so let your characters interrupt each other and interject and speak in a different way to the author's descriptive voice.
(5) Don't create perfect speech!When writing in general, I'm a grammar pedant. I can't help it. It's compulsive. But when writing dialogue, I've learned to let that go and break the rules a litte! Just make sure that you're doing it on purpose ;)
In our spoken shorthand, we use short speech. In short speech, we butcher grammar left, right and center. You DON'T always need full sentences. You DON'T always need the BE verb for that gerund. You DON'T always need the right spelling. I teach ESL to Korean students and I spend hours telling students to focus on syntax and build sentences and there's always that savvy student who comes back at me with, "But... Miss! Why do we have to? You don't!" And they're spot on. Native speakers of a language can happily butcher their own language as they already know they can do it right.
(6) Trim your talk!
Get out your red pen now. Apply it to bits of dialogue that don't:
(a) advance your plot
(b) reveal character
(c) set atmosphere
Now, don't get me wrong - banter is great! But make sure it's adding either to character or atmosphere!
(7) Everybody talks different or differently!
Wouldn't it be a bit odd if everyone you knew spoke the same way that you do? I'd go so far as to say it'd be a little bit creepy. You don't want to accidentally give your characters the same voice or same speaking style. Even though I've just finished telling you to keep things short, boom...let some people speak more than others and in longer sentences and a hundred other differences. A good example of variety would be Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Go and have a look at the dialogue differences between the pompous Mr. Collins and the more down-to-earth Elizabeth. Contrast the frivolous Mrs Bennett and the more concise and sharp Mr Bennett. There are a ton of differences in dialogue and that's all within one small community of people.
(8) Get a world of feedback!
(9) Freestyle with a friend!If said friends are willing or easily bribed with wine, give them a situation from your story and a role and do a little improv together to see how this might happen in a spontaneous situation. While not delivering perfect results, it may help you shake yourself away from overly-scripting your dialogue and you can borrow bits of it to make your dialogue seem more spontaneous. And if it fails, at least there'll be wine.
(10) THE MOST IMPORTANT FOR LAST! Read your work out loud!
When you finish a conversation on the page, READ IT BACK TO YOURSELF OUT LOUD! What seemed perfectly natural whilst writing might seem rather odd when speaking. So speak it. Record yourself. Listen back. Mock yourself when you've used vocabulary not natural for that situation. Push yourself when you realise that your characters all share one voice. And edit yourself when you realise that your dialogue has the same type of sentences as the rest of your writing. Because there really should be a difference.