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Dialogue, or “That’s what she said”

January 2, 2010

You may have noticed I have a tendancy to wax eloquent when I draft my blog entries.  My wife described my style as “very professional-sounding”, which I believe she meant as a compliment. 

But when writing dialogue, that’s a bad thing.

The problem, of course, is that people don’t speak this way in real life.  We don’t use phrases like “wax eloquent” in every-day speech.  We don’t use long, compound sentences with multiple clauses.  We use relatively few multi-syllabic words, or you could say there is an inverse relationship between the number of syllables a word possesses and the frequency with which it is used in spoken language.

So, on paper, my writing looks great.  But stories are about people, and people communicate with spoken language, and spoken language is nothing like this sort of professional language.

In fact, spoken language is a great deal more complicated than my sort of professional written language.  Speech patterns vary dramatically across regions, just in the anglophonic world.  Add in the variations of speech patterns brought to us by the native French speakers, or native Chinese speakers, German speakers, and everyone else, and you have a near infinite variety and complexity of patterns to try to grasp to get dialogue in a story sounding realistic.

But there are a few general rules that I think can help, and which I am trying to apply in my writing.  First, unless you happen to be me, most people try to use as few words as possible to say what they want to say, and they try to use as small words as possible.  So, generally, a dialogue between two people will be a series of relatively rapid-fire, short sentences.

Second, at least within the native English speaking world, there tend to be a lot of filler words that don’t add appreciably to the denotative content of a sentence (though they may add some connotative and situational meaning).  The exact filler words that are most commonly used seems to vary a bit from region to region, and excessive use of these fillers can give certain speech patterns a very stereotypical appearance.  For instance, as 1980s pop culture has drilled into us, excessive use of the filler “like” in a sentence tells us the speaker is from California, most likely a stereotyped “Valley Girl”.

Different regional dialects also employ a slightly modified vocabulary.  This article on Wikipedia details just a small number of the various regional vocabulary changes across North America.  Understanding some of these trends can go a long way toward making characters in a story sound like they’re from where they say they’re from.  I think using regional vocabularies can have a bigger, and more subtle impact than using phonetic spelling to spell out how the regional dialect is pronounced.  (By that I mean writing something like “Ah seyed what ah meyant” in place of “I said what I meant” to simulate the sound of the Southern accent, for instance, which might come off as mildly offensive in some cases.)

When writing science fiction, if you have a handle on dialects, you can have a lot of fun implying how future history has changed our language  by changing the way you have your characters speak.  If you are writing a fantasy that is not based in a contemporary world, you have a little more free-reign with speech patterns, vocabularies and accents, since you are modeling a world where the history and development of language are nothing at all like our own.

In some stories, you may have the tricky proposition of representing what is spoken by your characters in another language while using a language your readers can understand.  For instance, you may have a story set in rural China where all your characters are speaking a Chinese dialect.  But if your readers are all English-speaking, chances are you will want to write everything your characters are saying as if they had spoken in English.  But to make the dialogue still seem authentic, you may want to add in a few key terms from the appropriate Chinese dialect (which you have dutifully defined for your readers elsewhere), and try to model your characters’  speech patterns on the way actual Chinese speakers might speak.

Writing good dialogue is definitely a beast to tackle.  Doing so successfully takes more than a mastery of written language.  It takes a keen ear, used to listen to the ways in which actual people speak, and it takes familiarity with the words, phrases, and patterns that change between speakers across different regions.

And it takes one more thing: remembering that your characters are not cardboard cutouts, but should be fully fleshed-out human beings.  If you have a character who, like me, was raised through much of his childhood out in the Western States and was then transplanted into the Southern States where, as a grown man, he has now spent the majority of his life, who is well-educated, and who likes exercising with language you will have a character whose speech patterns sound like no one else in your story.  In other words, there’s an enormous variety in the ways we speak in the real world: try to capture some of that variety and uniqueness in your characters.

Happy writing.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Clint permalink
    January 3, 2010 10:20 pm

    I tend to take a “real world” approach to dialog (ie. trying to make the dialog as realistic as possible). This includes adding filler words and other verbal tics. To accomplish this, I often read my dialog aloud and if it doesn’t sound right, I try to convey the same message in my own speech, off the cuff. This usually gives me the result I want. I can see this not being quite as useful in fantasy writing since the characters are often “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” and whatnot and adding “like” and “um” to the dialog might have an undesirable effect.

    Still, though, reading the dialog aloud could probably prove useful. If it sounds weird in your mouth, it’ll probably sound weird in your reader’s ears.

    • January 4, 2010 9:19 am

      I think you’re right-on that using filler words adds a lot to the realism of dialogue. And this can still be useful in a large amount of fantasy and science fiction – since many of these stories take place in contemporary settings influenced by the “real world” or near-future settings that may be notably similar to our own time. I think you’re especially right-on with reading the dialogue aloud as a tactic to ensure the dialogue “sounds” right. This is something that’s useful, no matter what genre you write in. Now that I think on it, I don’t think it’s something I’ve regularly done, but I think I’ll have to change that.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Clint.

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