Good dialog is often hard to write. For one thing, people speak differently than they write. We are encouraged to use full sentences when we write, but we often use fragments when we speak. When is the last time you heard someone greet a friend by saying, “How are you doing?” Typically, we say, “How you doing?” or “What’s up,” to greet our friends. Hello or hi, are probably better choices.
There are tricks to getting dialog right. For me, I have my computer read me the text. The flatness of the delivery helps me to choose the words. Then I read it aloud to see if it sounds natural. If it sounds stilted or awkward when I put emotion into it, I change it until it sounds like something a real person would say.
Use the shortcuts people usually use. For example, “I don’t know,” can be shortened to “Don’t know,” and still be understood. Of course, I speak English so I can only comment on that language which uses contractions. People rarely say “cannot”. They say “can’t” instead. Be careful when using slang, however. Slang changes fast in a language. In the nineteen sixties everything was groovy. Now, no one says groovy unless they are describing something with grooves. On the other hand, trendy speech can make your character sound real. It’s a fine line.
Putting words in your characters’ mouths is difficult, but done correctly, you can bring your characters to life. That is the goal. Go out into a crowd and tune into the conversations going on around you. Listen to the cadences in addition to the words. Sometimes it isn’t what words a person says as much as the tone of voice, hand gestures, facial expressions – in short – body language. Include body language in your dialog. Rather than writing. “It’s hot,” he said. Write, “It’s hot.” He wiped his hand across his sweat slicked forehead. You can even dispense with the dialog. The rest of it tells the reader the character is hot.
A lot of language is not verbal. We communicate a lot using our hands, posture, and faces. A person running waving their hands wants attention. Adding in the dialog helps, but isn’t the only cues we use to know what they are trying to communicate.
“Stop.” Jimmy ran waving his hands. “The bridge is out.” “Wait.” Jimmy ran waving his hands. “I’ve got to talk to you.” Both sentences involve hand waving, but convey completely different urgency and messages.
Dialog is more than just information dump. Dialog can be used to set the tone for a scene, provide important information, or reveal something about a character. Keep it real, but not too real. Gloss over greetings beyond the basics. Don’t get bogged down in greetings. No one wants to read, “hi how are you?” “I’m fine, you?” “I’m doing good.” Unless one of your characters just got out of the hospital, it’s not necessary beyond the initial greeting, “hello” or “hi”.
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