Sunday, March 1, 2009

Voices in Your Head; Constructing Dialogues in Writing

Are you struggling with your story’s dialogue? If so, you’re not alone. Dialogue is tough for many writers. Fortunately, by learning to listen, you can make your fictional dialogue much stronger. So let’s begin by looking at a quick dialogue exchange, from a short story I’ve been working on.
Her eyes finally met mine. “This isn’t right, Neil. You felt it out there. I know it.”
I nodded. “But it’s free floating. It doesn’t cling to the water and it really isn’t a part of the tank. And there’s no body. A spirit just circles the site.”
“A broken circle,” she said gravely. “Pieces missing…death. Someone died out there.”
“So you’re saying this is a murder?”
“Maybe. Don’t know. No body. But the evil...the dark spirit. It’s still there.”
I had learned over the years that Kathy might be wrong about events and timing, but rarely about feelings. To her, the evil we felt meant death.
“Look,” I told her. “We’ll never know what happened out there. I say we just send the spirit away and go home.”
She shook her head. “It won’t leave…not now, anyway. Isn’t settled…”
Although you’re coming into the story somewhere in the middle, without really knowing the characters, you still get a “feel” for each of them simply by reading this short passage of dialogue. One character is more analytical, trying to make sense of what they’ve seen. The other relies mostly on feeling and instinct, taking a more direct approach to the situation. Two distinct individuals.

But the question is, “How do we know this?” Certainly there’s a bit of narrative here, but not much. Most of what we know we learn from the spoken words. And I’m not talking about the information here. Instead, I’m referring to way these characters speak. For example, notice how the analytical character speaks in complete sentences, in larger concepts. The woman, on the other hand, speaks in short bursts, using clipped sentences and fragments. Each of these speech patterns relates directly to the characters and who they are.

People are unique in their physical characteristics, the way they dress, and how they view the world. We use these things to paint portraits of people in fiction and nonfiction. But it’s important to remember that people also speak in unique ways. And those speech patterns tell readers just as much about that person as anything else you write. In fact, a unique method of speech often creates a deeper portrait. The readers actually hear the person, as well as seeing your visual description. And that can be a powerful tool.

To achieve this, start listening to the way people speak, paying particular attention to some of the following aspects of speech.

1. Wordiness—Some people will use many words, in many long sentences. Others (like our character above) may speak in short bursts and fragments. This can tell readers a lot about the character’s approach to life. It may even hint at some sort of agenda. Wordiness, for example, may be tool for evasion, helping the person avoid answering a question.

2. Tempo—People speak slowly or at high speed and again, that’s a clue to who they are and how they live their lives. Listen to tempo in speech. Listen for pauses, especially those that might stem from caution or lack of an answer. The rate at which a person offers words can be a great character-building tool.

3. Slang—People and characters will often use slang, helping readers determine their age, economic background, ethnicity, and career. Remember that a simple slang word speaks volumes about a person. Make sure it’s telling readers what you want them to know.

4. Vocal Habits—One person may always clear his/her throat before speaking. Another may overuse a certain word or phrase. Another might be liberal with short sounds, like “uh.” Each of these identifies the person for readers and when they see him/her again, they’re able to immediately grasp that unique character. And that helps keep the story moving.

One very helpful exercise for developing dialogue is to use your friends, relatives and acquaintances. Take a line of dialogue from a short story or a quote from a nonfiction article you’re working on. Then imagine each of your friends saying that line. How would your best friend say it? Your mother? Your boss? You should be able to hear differences just by imagining how others would tackle a particular line of dialogue.
Once you have that firmly in your mind, practicing writing it so that it sounds different to readers with each new speaker. You’ll soon find your dialogue skills (and your ear for speech) improving.

Best of luck with all your writing.

©  by Mike Foley

About The Author

Mike Foley is editor of Dream Merchant Magazine and author of more than 700 published stories and articles. He also teaches fiction and nonfiction writing in the extension program at UC-Riverside. Since 1986, Mike has operated the Writer’s Review critique/editing service, helping hundreds of aspiring writers improve their fiction and nonfiction projects.For information on Mike’s critique or coaching services, visit his website: email