From the Pen of a Writer, Part 2: Dialogue

29 June 2011

I am very excited to be introducing Part 2 of my From the Pen of a Writer series, since it is something I struggle with often. Dialogue can be difficult, because the author needs to make the reader feel as if this is something someone would really say. Dialogue that is too flowery is pretty, but not very realistic, which leads to the reader not being able to relate and in the long run, putting down your book... which you don't want. 

So, here is my spin on how to keep your characters' conversations natural. And if you have any other suggestions that I have not mentioned in this post, please drop me a comment and let me know. :)
1. Take Notes
Something that has helped me a lot with my characters' conversations is not just trying to make it sound realistic but also listening to the conversations that I and others have with each other. Since Violets Are Blue is set during the Edwardian era, I also have to do research and read books written about people who lived in that time, so as to immerse myself in the dialogue of the period. However, it is possible to go too far: I have been told before that my dialogue is a bit stiff or too formal. *blushes* I'm trying to improve that. Historical fiction dialogue can be very tricky, and I certainly haven't completely mastered it yet. The balance is between making it sound accurate and at the same time portraying that they were no different than we are now, though their conversations may sound more "formal." A fine line, indeed. :)
2. Tea Time
I'm not joking here. Sit down, have a cup of tea, and get to know your characters. Chat lightly about the weather, discuss hopes and dreams for the future, put yourself in their shoes. "But I invented my characters!" you protest. "Who would know more about them than I?" Well, you do know more about your characters than the average person... however, that still isn't very much. When I first began Violets Are Blue, I found it hard to mold my characters since I didn't know a whole lot about them. It really helps to give reason behind everything they do or say: why did the Bradshaws move; why does Violet not like water; why is Helen so dramatic and talkative. As I provided these answers, I became more familiar with my characters. Now it's much easier for me to write dialogues because I know exactly how each character will react to certain situations. And you will too. But it takes time. I've been writing VAB since last July (it sounds like a long time, but it really isn't quite as lengthy as you would think), and I still don't know everything there is to know about my characters. Writing is more than putting words down on paper; it's about getting into the head(s) of your character(s) and penning a tale from their perspective.
3. Third Time's the Charm
Okay, so you've finished writing a scene in your book and you want to read over it again to make sure it sounds right. Instead of simply scanning your eyes quickly over the words on the screen, read the conversation outloud, using the proper accents (if you can) for the characters. It's amazing how well this works; immediately, sentences that don't work seem to jump off the screen at you. Characters, especially when you use their proper accents, suddenly become real. Thus, when they say something that sounds a bit odd, the words will separate themselves from the rest of the page, almost as if they were underlined in red. When you're scanning  over the dialogue--not really reading it--it's so much easier to miss errors. 
4. The Truth Hurts
Nothing helps make your conversations sound realistic more than letting a friend or family member read over your writing and tell you what they think. They come in with an unbiased opinion and are willing to judge honestly. Yes, it can be painful. Yes, sometimes you will refuse to believe what they are saying about your carefully-written scenes. But, in the long run, you will come to the conclusions that they are right, and your writing will be so much the better. Besides, it's much nicer to hear critisism from a family member or friend who loves you, as opposed to a book agent or publisher who is going to be very direct and to the point.

What do you do when you're having trouble writing dialogue?

3 epistles:

  1. I've never had trouble writing dialog, but I did have trouble telling things instead of showing them through dialog. As in, "she looked frightened" when it would work better to say, "Lydia, what's wrong? You're white as a sheet!" (weak example.) :) I love all your tips! :)

  2. I must use that read-out-loud tip. I have trouble with dialogue... Thanks for getting us thinking about it.


  3. I haven't had much trouble in writing dialogue, BUT, I am rewriting a classic series of which most of my friends disapprove of me doing, and the style of dialogue is quite...different from mine. I don't plan on changing it, but I do plan on making it more understandable for a person who may not be as advanced as the author was. Okay, that sounded so formal, didn't it? Yeah...I'm trying to work on that, too :))
    Okay, off to read part 3 :))
    -Jocee <3


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