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Realistic Dialog

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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glorybee
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Realistic Dialog

Postby glorybee » Sat Mar 05, 2016 9:44 am

When you’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction, one of the best ways to engage your reader is to make your characters realistic, and one of the quickest ways to lose your reader is to write a character who doesn’t resemble a real person. There are many factors to characterization, and you can find my lesson on characterization if you want to follow up on this one, which will tackle realistic characters’ dialog.

So much can go wrong when writing dialog—you need to consider your character’s age, her location in space and time, her amount of education, her career, her economic status, her personality, her faith, her ethnicity, and many other characteristics that might define her manner of speaking. Many writers make the error of writing all of their characters with the same, generic tone of voice and manner of speaking.

Let’s consider how people of several different ages might indicate puzzlement at a person’s actions:

A young child: Mama, why that man do that?
An older child: What’s he doing?
A teen: What’s up with him?
An adult: I have no idea what that man is doing.
An older adult: I’ve never seen such a thing in all my days.

***For a writing exercise, try doing this with a different continuum of characters: from different places in the country, for example, or with varying emotions.***

One of the most off-putting kinds of dialogue is that of a young child who speaks with words that don’t fit that child’s age. It’s tricky, because children’s language skills evolve so quickly, and because even children of the same age have different language skills. However, it’s very common to read things like this:

“Mother,” said Katelyn, “I don’t care for this yogurt. May I have another, please? This particular flavor is not to my liking.” She banged her spoon on the high chair tray for emphasis.

Well, that may be an exaggeration, but not by much. I’ve read lots and lots of stories in which children in a contemporary setting address their parents by ‘mother’ and ‘father.’ That’s extremely rare in real life. I’ve also read extended conversations between young children and adults that don’t resemble anything like a real life conversation: polite, fully articulated questions and answers that follow a very linear path to a logical conclusion. If you’ve ever had a real child in your life, you know that’s not how conversations with them go. They interrupt. They get distracted. They misunderstand. They ask ridiculous questions. They burp. They get silly, or they get bored.

If it’s been a while since you had a child in your life but you’re writing one into your story, go find a child of that age and listen to her for a while, so that you can write her realistically.

Similarly, many people write teenagers wrong. I taught teens for thirty years, and I raised two of them, and I’ve read more stories in which teens’ dialog reads ‘off’ than not. Common errors include these:

• Using slang of a different era. Slang changes very rapidly, so if you want your teens to sound like today’s teens, go listen to some. Don’t use ‘groovy’ or ‘gnarly’ or the like unless those words are appropriate for your setting. But do use slang; don’t have your teens speak like adults.
• Going overboard with vocal mannerisms such as ‘like’ in order to sound authentic. Yes, today’s teens use ‘like’ or ‘he goes’ instead of ‘he says’ far too much. Does it irritate you? It’ll irritate your reader, too. Just as it’s best to only suggest an accent or a dialect, use those sorts of speech mannerisms sparingly.
• Making teens (especially teen boys) too talkative. In real life, they tend to speak in monosyllabic replies, sometimes only grunts. Very few of them speak in complete, grammatically correct, sentences or paragraphs.
• As I said about children above, conversations with teens aren’t typically logical or linear. The teens get interrupted with texts, they get something to eat or drink, they walk away.

Interestingly, the stories I read here on FaithWriters get adult dialog more accurately. Perhaps this is because the writers here are adults, and we write our characters as if we ourselves were speaking. But there are still some common errors that crop up (and see the lessons on dialog for a more thorough examination of these):

• Unnecessarily stiff dialog. Some writers may have been taught at some point not to use contractions in their writing, but following that rule (which isn’t a rule at all) makes for very stiff dialogue. Again—write dialog the way people actually speak, with interruptions, fragments, lapses in grammar, contractions, idiomatic expressions, and the like.
• Dialog that doesn’t fit the characteristics of the person. I listed some of these characteristics in the second paragraph of this lesson.
• Bland, generic dialogue.

You can find the lessons on ‘characterization’ and ‘dialog’ on this list, along with many other topics that might be of interest to you.

Do you have anything to add on making a character’s dialog fit that character? Questions? Suggestions for future lessons? Be sure to post them here.
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itsjoanne
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Re: Realistic Dialog

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Mar 05, 2016 3:13 pm

This is REALLY good stuff, Jan - just a couple things I want to add.

While you want your dialogue to be realistic, you don't want it to be TOO realistic. People stutter and say um and pause a ton in speech, and there is nothing like a bit of realism, but do not put ALL of that in there, word for word (and pause and/or grunt for pause). You want your dialogue to flow and make sense, and for folks not to get too caught up in the mannerisms and pauses and such that might be in "real" speech. And yes, it IS a delicate balance to get it just right. But at least try.

The other thing is that the VERY best way to see how realistic and smooth your dialogue is is to actually read it out loud. It IS dialogue, after all ;) Reading your work aloud is a great way to check for flow in general - but for dialogue, it is even more important, I think.

Also - just for fun, and because I AM the children's writer, there is a book you can probably check out of your library (or mine :wink: ) called The Children's Writer's Word Book. Among other things, it has a list of words by grade level reading ability. Sure, they can say more than they can read, but it might be a good starting point.

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Re: Realistic Dialog

Postby glorybee » Sat Mar 05, 2016 9:22 pm

Thanks, Joanne! I love your contributions to these lessons! (Still hoping for some guest posts from you some time...)
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Re: Realistic Dialog

Postby itsjoanne » Sun Mar 06, 2016 4:04 pm

glorybee wrote:Thanks, Joanne! I love your contributions to these lessons! (Still hoping for some guest posts from you some time...)


I know...let me know if a Saturday in April would work. :)

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Re: Realistic Dialog

Postby RachelM » Sun Mar 06, 2016 9:52 pm

This is a great lesson, Jan!

I'm not sure if I'm unusual in this, but I "hear" my characters and write down what they say and how they say it. I imagine the scenes as I write them, and I can hear their distinct voices (deep, hesitant, nonchalant etc.) Maybe it's just an imagination on steriods. Does anyone else "hear" their characters in this way?
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Re: Realistic Dialog

Postby glorybee » Sun Mar 06, 2016 11:40 pm

RachelM wrote:This is a great lesson, Jan!

I'm not sure if I'm unusual in this, but I "hear" my characters and write down what they say and how they say it. I imagine the scenes as I write them, and I can hear their distinct voices (deep, hesitant, nonchalant etc.) Maybe it's just an imagination on steriods. Does anyone else "hear" their characters in this way?


I do, too!
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
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