Learning to write engaging dialogue

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I am currently sitting in a cafe listening to a group of men’s discussion. I often do this, earwig on people’s conversations. You may think this is rude and it probably is; I don’t know how I would feel knowing a complete random was sitting listening to everything I say. But I am a writer, I am allowed to as this is research. Ok, I am naturally nosy but that is beside the point. Taking liberties with other people’s privacy makes me a better writer.

I am lucky enough to have my writing regularly subjected to critique in my Masters study and one of the pieces of feedback I regularly receive is that I am good at writing dialogue. See, all this earwigging is worth it. I put this down to the fact I enjoy listening to other people. I like hearing the weird, little nuances in the way people speak.

Being able to write dialogue is more than just a technical skill. You can read up in any writing book on where to put your quotation marks and punctuation, and while this is important, it will not help you write engaging dialogue. Below, I offer some of my musings on how to write dialogue effectively and in a way that engages your reader:

Listen to people

I encourage you to do as I do; listen to others. I mean, be discreet about it. Don’t record them, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal or something.

Make note of the different ways people deliver their speech, the inflections in their dialect.

I hate reading dialogue that sounds ordered and perfect. This isn’t how people speak. When you listen to real conversations, you’ll notice how disordered it sounds. People often interrupt one another. Sentences are often left unfinished.

Listening to those around you will help you with creating natural speech, for example, we write ‘you know’ but people say ‘y’know’. Sprinkle things like this into your dialogue for more natural dialogue.

Remember though that your written dialogue will differ from real speech. If you transcribed every conversation you heard, most of it is incredibly boring. The dialogue you write needs to both develop your character and the story. Question whether the dialogue you intend to use is necessary to create conflict or move the story along.

Create individual voices

A character’s speech will reveal, among other things, their personality to the reader. To do this, you need to ensure that you make your reader hear the voice of the character.

You can do this for each character by paying attention to their ‘voice’. Make sure you establish a clear norm for your character as this will you to deviate from this to indicate a different emotion or situation is taking place. If your character normally has a considered, thoughtful way of speaking, you can indicate a change in the mood or mentality by having them speak in a rushed or rapid-fire manner.

When I was a teacher, the children in my classes would always comment about how much they enjoyed storytime because I would ‘do the voices’. By this they meant that I would apply different voices to each character I was reading. I would do this for a few reasons 1) it was fun 2) it made it clear to the children who was speaking 3) that’s how heard the individual voices in my head.

One of the books I will always remember children loving was Varjak Paw, a wonderful children’s book by S F Said. One of the favourite characters, a dog called Cludge, has a clear voice.

Look at this example:
‘Cludge alone,’ he sniffed. ‘Everyone run from Cludge. No friends.’

Read this aloud and I bet we would have read his speech with a similar style. It lends itself to a certain voice.

If all your characters sound the same, not only will this be jarring and confusing for your reader but it shows, very clearly, that you have not done the groundwork in getting to know them yourself.

Use different dialects

As well as revealing personality, a character’s speech reveals their economic or class background, their locality and their educational level.

One of the pieces of writing I was praised heavily on in my course was a piece where I incorporated the use of patois. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was younger as my mum held down two jobs. Both of them originally hailed from Jamaica and therefore hearing patois was a daily occurrence.

Here’s an example from the piece I wrote:

‘Oh t’ank you, young man. Yes, yes. Stop fuss over me nuh, me gw’an get too used to it!’

She laughed and reached into the neckline of her dress, pulling out two crumpled notes and giving one to each boy. When giving the youngest boy his money, she let his hand linger in hers,

‘Now, you tek this and buy some cinnamon for your mudder’s apple cake, yuh hear? Apple cake always better wid cinnamon.’

The readers who commented on this piece loved this character, Delphine, as they felt they could ‘see’ her well because of the way she spoke. One of my fellow students stated that I “visualised ‘Delphine’ as an older woman, something of a Caribbean earth mother. You’ve captured her dialect superbly as well.”

While the use of different dialect is great way to help your reader visualise your characters, be aware that it requires a lot of work for your reader to decode. Also, be tasteful. If you don’t know the dialect well or you think you’re in danger of overgeneralising, steer clear.  Every black teenager doesn’t listen to hip-hop and speak in urban dialect.

Lose the tags

Tagging your dialogue slows things down for the reader. Look at these examples:

‘I hate when you do that’ Anne muttered.

‘Do what?’ Tom snarled.

‘You know exactly what I am talking about,’ she exclaimed.

He replied, ‘Oh for goodness sake, Anne’

Losing the tags moves the dialogue along at a much quicker pace:

‘I hate when you do that.’ Anne muttered.

‘Do what?’ Tom snarled.

‘You know exactly what I am talking about,’

‘Oh for goodness sake, Anne’

By general rule, I think sticking to more simple tags like ‘said’ or ‘asked’ is preferable. In this case, I used ‘muttered’ and ‘snarled’. The use of tags like this can add value to your writing by describing the tone of her voice and setting the mood of the scene but can also act as a distraction to your reader. It’s worth thinking can people really ‘sigh’ their dialogue? If you want to use more descriptive dialogue tags, use them sparingly. Aim to use the narration and dialogue itself to show emotion or action.

Losing as many tags as possible will creating a rhythm for your reader. However, be careful as tags do help to identify the speaker so don’t get rid of all of them. In my example, it was clear who was speaking because it was a back and forth exchange and Tom refers to Anne by name in the last piece of dialogue.

Break the rules

Remember speech tends to be more informal than written word. So formal grammar can be given the heave-ho. Use of quotation or speech marks might not be necessary. I can hear you now, ‘Wait, woah, what did she say?’ But seriously, you don’t have to use quotation marks.

In N.W., Zadie Smith writes dialogue like this at points:

— I keep bumping into her.
— Naomi, stop doing that.
— She was at school with us. It’s hard to believe.
— Is it? Why? Naomi, stop it. Come away from the barbecue. It’s fire, hot. Come her.
— Never mind.

This is an unconventional way of writing dialogue and not something you’ll learn when researching how to write technically accurate dialogue. You’ll need to be consistent in your use of unconventional methods though. As with the use of dialect, reading dialogue which doesn’t follow traditional methods requires a lot of work by the reader. So you’ll want to make it worth it.

The use of sentence fragments in dialogue is also pretty normal in dialogue. It makes it more natural-sounding. However, there should be a neat balance between realistic speech and readability in your writing.

Add gestures

Allow your characters to speak without speaking, just like real people do, by using body language to enhance a character’s dialogue.

Consider this example:

‘I wondered if you’d like to come to dinner with me tonight,’ Tracey asked.

‘Yeah, sure,’ said Bob.

Does it read differently now?

Tracey bit her lip, ‘I wondered if you’d like to come to dinner with me tonight’

Bob suppressed a sigh, ‘Yeah, sure.’

Think about which example helps you to learn more about Tracey and Bob’s relationship.  You can add suspense and drama by placing in a few character gesture within your speech. Add the dialogue first, then think about your character’s body language.

Know your target audience

In an article for the Guardian, Alex Wheatle mentions having to “learn new skillsets” for his YA novels, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights. He states that his writing needed to become more immediate and engaging than in his books for adults. This is important to think about. When writing for adults, you can have a character spend time delving into their feelings with a paragraph-long monologue, this would not work as well in YA fiction.

Wheatle also worked on invented his own slang to incorporate into his writing so as to not have “some smart-ass kid from London SW9 telling me we don’t use those words any more, Alex!” Slang dates quickly so if you don’t want your dialogue to age along with, you’ll need to be inventive in your use of this and pop culture references.

Final word

Writing dialogue is hugely important element of your novel writing. Make sure you read yours out loud. ‘Do the voices’ as my pupils used to say. Make sure your characters are not just variations of you by listening to and reading many different examples of people. But most importantly, remember that dialogue develops both your characters and the plot of your novel. If it isn’t doing this, then it definitely isn’t engaging.

I leave you with words from the wonderful Stephen King, who in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, states “When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know – it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.”

What methods do you use to make your dialogue engaging?