Say What? – Writing Great Dialog

The following was originally published in Fiction Fix Newsletter in January, 2002.


father and daughter

What are they talking about? Try making up a conversation in your head – it’s great practice.

We talk every day. We hold conversations wherever we go–at work, out shopping, or at home with our families. You could say we’re all experts at casual chatter. Why, then, do many writers find dialog so difficult to write?

I’ve always been a whiz at making characters converse, but when some friends in my writers’ group asked me how I do it I found myself stumped. How could I explain something that came naturally? It wasn’t as if I ever had to learn to write dialog–I just do it. So I started thinking about my process, trying to bring forth some of the techniques I subconsciously use and the rules I instinctively follow. This is what I came up with.

LISTEN TO PEOPLE

It’s pretty simple–listen to people when they talk. What sorts of things do they say? How do they say them? Listen for the rhythms in their speech. Listen for their vocal ticks. (Do they say your name a lot when talking to you, for instance? Or maybe they use a certain phrase repeatedly.) Replay conversations in your head during quiet times. In fact, make up conversations in your head.

AT THE MOVIES

Today’s movie audiences don’t buy into hokey dialog. The characters on the screen must speak in a way that rings true, or moviegoers will turn away. So, it only stands to reason that a great source for learning dialog would be the cinema.My brother and I are constantly quoting movie lines. Drives the rest of our family nuts. We remember dialog because we pay attention. Start listening at movies and during TV time. If you’re usually a visual person, try closing your eyes to help yourself listen. Remember the tone and style of the characters’ conversations. Continue reading