History That Never Was

Home of Dawn Vogel: Writer, Historian, Geek

A Question from the Audience: Dialogue

It’s time for another question from the audience!

How do you tighten up dialogue? How do you make dialogue that sounds right to a reader that’s not you?

This is an interesting question for me, because I don’t know that I’m necessarily good at writing dialogue (and in fact, I wrote about not being great with dialogue back in 2012). I’ve been told that I write authentic sounding kids, though, so that probably includes their dialogue. And I write good familial relationships, including their dialogue. In both of those cases, I think I draw a lot from real life experiences of interacting with children and growing up in a family where we bickered and teased a lot but also loved each other (which is a thing about the families in my stories, oftentimes). So “drawn from the pages of real life” is always an option. But that’s more about the “making it sound right” than the “tightening it up.”

I do know that when I initially write dialogue, it’s often got a lot of filler words and likely seems a lot more like a transcript of an actual person talking than folks are used to reading for dialogue. So when I revise my writing, I’m looking for those filler words (“and” and “but” at the beginning of sentences are some of my big ones, but also just the sort of hemming and hawing that real people use when they speak but that just pads out the dialogue). I still want to make sure my characters have identifiable voices, of course, but by tidying up some of the filler words (and by leaving them in for some characters), I can make the voices in my dialogue both flow more naturally and be slightly distinctive.

That’s another key to writing good dialogue: giving people distinctive speech patterns (without going too far into things like dialect, unusual accents, slang, etc.) and keeping those consistent. You can have a character who uses a lot of words if that’s a consistent character trait. For example, some characters don’t use contractions. Ever. And that works for those characters. But you have to keep that consistent throughout all of their dialogue, or suddenly a reader will be jarred from reading that character. Similarly, you can have a character who uses words very sparsely, so long as that’s also consistent. Examples of the latter in my own writing are Indigo and Deliah in the Brass and Glass series. Both of these characters will use only a few words to get their messages across (and sometimes even when those few words aren’t quite enough, leading other characters to have to fill in the blanks of what isn’t said). If either of them has dialogue that’s more than a few abbreviated sentences, it starts seeming out of character for them!

More than anything, I think I’ve learned the most about writing dialogue by reading (and seeing how other authors handle it) and by listening to the way people around me talk. Some might call it eavesdropping, but if the people involved are strangers, it’s more like research!

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