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He Said, She Said: The Art of Dialogue

Here are a few thoughts on writing dialogue. This is NOT meant as a teaching lesson. These are simply my opinions.

Dialogue. It can make or break a story. Dialogue is the lines your characters speak aloud in a written story. They differ from the narrative voice in that even the peripheral characters are given a voice through dialogue.

Writing lines for your characters is not always an easy task–though it doesn’t have to be difficult, either. In real life, people speak in ways that may seem impossible to capture on paper. Consider the varying dialects within the same languages. British English has its own patterns and words that differ from American English or the Aussie brand of the language. (And that’s not even counting the varying dialects within the same country.) A skillful writer should be able to illustrate that, of the three characters conversing in the opening scene of chapter seven, two are from England while the third is from Australia–without mentioning this every time they speak.
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If the writer can hear those voices in his/her head, they should be able to drop in little vocal hints within the written dialogue that give life to the characters and to the stories they tell. But it’s not always easy.

When writing my novel Jazz Baby, I had to research the era (1920s) and the region (Deep South, USA) in order to capture the voice of not just my narrator but of each and every character that utters a line in the story. Some were Louisiana Cajun. They spoke with a twang, had a particular way of saying things, which is not always easy to put onto paper.
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What about Neesie, the young laundry girl, who befriends the main character? These two girls are the same age, but they come from vastly different backgrounds. Though both were poor, one came from Mississippi and the other from Alabama; Emily is white and Neesie black. They would have had differing speech patterns–as would the better-educated adults who crossed paths with my young narrator. These differences have to come through in the dialogue. There’s a rich stew of slang going on in these characters’ words. Slang is part of language–no matter where you come from. This is where good research pays off. It takes time, searching for words and idioms used in certain regions and eras, but that extra effort is worth it in the end.
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Dialogue is probably my favorite part of writing fiction. These are words and accents that give personality to characters that did not exist until I put pen to paper (or tapped those computer keys) and gave them meaning, reason, and life.

So here’s my advice to any writer who might be struggling with dialogue issues: Just write what you hear. Listen to voices on the street or those being spoken inside your head; read works by other authors; study classic films. That little extra effort will usually show up in the finished product. The great thing about language is: it’s all around us in so many differing forms.