Let’s talk about dialogue

TalkA few readers recently have been kind enough to make positive comments about the use of dialogue in Song of the Sea God – for which I thank them very much. I decided I would share a few thoughts about writing dialogue in fiction in the hope it might stimulate a discussion.

These points are just a few things which strike me about the art of writing conversation in novels – I’m sure you will have your own, and please do add them in the comments section at the bottom so it can become a resource for people visiting this post.

Here’s what helps me when I’m writing dialogue.

Listen up

First I listen. I ear-wig on people’s conversations. It’s probably a bad habit but, you know, if that’s my worst then I’m doing ok. Whenever I’m sitting at a coffee-shop or on the bus, or in the pub I’m picking up scraps of dialogue, the things people say, the way people say them. If there’s an interesting exchange I might even write it down later in the notebook I carry with me and, who knows, it may pop up again in a story or novel.

As well as noticing what people say I notice how they say it, the little quirks of spoken English – have you noticed, for example, how often people begin a sentence: ‘Yeah, no…’ I try to reflect the way people speak, the natural cadences they employ.

Not too real

I remember too though that real speech is messy. When I was an undergraduate, studying English lit, I did some linguistics and, in those tutorials, came across real conversations, carefully and accurately transcribed. People talk over each other, trail off half way through what they’re saying, um and err. Written out exactly how it was said it looks odd and wrong and hard to read. The fact is, when you are writing you don’t want real speech – you want believable speech, and that’s a different thing.

_44607086_trainspotting_226_282Acute accent

Accent can be agony for the reader when it is done badly. If you want to see an accent done fabulously well in fiction you need look no further than Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. His story of young Edinburgh based drug-users is rendered entirely in a Scottish dialect which feels real and vital and powerful, it’s a triumph. If you want to see accent done not so well, take a look at some of the other British regional accents Welsh attempts in other books – they are perhaps not as believable.

I think there’s a lesson in that. If you can inhabit an accent like your own skin, because it is yours or because you are a fabulous mimic then go for it.

But otherwise beware!

Accent done badly in dialogue can be like nails on a blackboard. It can jar the reader out of the story and make what you write seem clunky and poorly executed. It can even be a cue to mirth – and no writer wants people laughing at their book in the wrong places!

I certainly favour giving a flavour of accent and in the words and construction I use – but it takes a brave man to go the full Trainspotting.

What’s the point?

Before I write dialogue in a story I ask myself a question: what I am I using it for? Letting characters burble away in your fiction to no particular end is not to be encouraged. Neither is having them spout lumps of clumsy plot exposition.

I think you have to leave your characters room to live through their speech, but not overindulge their jokes or banter at the expense of moving things on. Like so much else with writing fiction, this is a balancing act to be made on the basis of taste and experience.

So there we go – my thoughts on writing dialogue – what are yours?

Song of the Sea God visualSee what you think of my dialogue, and indeed the rest of what I do, in my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

20 thoughts on “Let’s talk about dialogue”

  1. I aim to make the accent and word choice an expression of existing character rather than the character itself; so insular rural characters might use “ain’t” and such, but have other equally strong non-verbal facets.

    I agree that over-realism often causes issues, as the closer to real you get the smaller the audience who share that language becomes. However, there are times when dialogue that is difficult for the reader (or for a group of readers) could be a valid choice.

    I wrote a post setting out more of my thoughts a few months ago.

    1. Yes you’re right about accent not being character – if you went down that road you could end up with what reads like the script of ‘Allo, Allo’ in an attempt to make the characters different from each other.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it to such an extent, Chris. I tend to put myself in the character’s shoes and imagine the conversation they might have without all the messiness, trailing off etc. I try to make it as interactive as possible, by which I mean no one gets to talk for long without the other person chipping in. I know I use dialogue to say things about my characters and the relationships they have with each other that I don’t want to describe. As for accents, yes, that’s a hard one. I won’t comment as I have a character now who’s a west countryman. I haven’t gone full on accent, but some of it’s there. I just hope it works. No doubt my proof readers will tell me! Great post by the way, but then they always are 🙂

  3. James Kelman is pitch perfect in “You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free”. I am Scottish, and it was a pleasure to read a book written with a heavy accent, that didn’t grate.

    William Faulkner is also fantastic at this. “As I lay Dying” and “The Reivers” spring to mind as books that used accent and language I was very unfamiliar with and at times uncomfortable with, and yet I kept reading.

    I actually read a lot of drama. It definitely helps in terms of acquiring “an ear” for dialogue. And I agree, listening in is an invaluable source of inspiration. Nothing wrong with being nosy 🙂

    1. Yeah – I’m northern English – Lancashire by birth, and I can do a reasonable northerner without ever using the phrase ‘eeh bah gum’ but I think you have to be a lot more careful with accents you are not personally familiar with.

  4. I agree with the previous comment – I grew up on radio plays, and it was the perfect learning ground for picking up how people speak without being over-pretentious and false. Also, like you, I listen to other people. And I repeat my dialogue out loud to see if it ‘flows’. Best I can do.

    1. Damn – reading out loud – I meant to mention that in my post – at least it’s here now (thanks Carol) – plus another writer, I think Sandra Howard, made the same point about reading dialogue in a comment the other day on one of my other posts. I really think it’s important – though I would say I like to read out all of mine, not just dialogue – I mean, maybe not the whole novel, soup to nuts, but a good chunk of it. I do make sure I am alone when I do this though!

  5. Great insights.I however do think dialogue is some way is part of character building.A character has to speak the way you want them to be seen or their story to be told.

    1. You’re right of course, it’s all linked up and kind of organic to some extent – the way people speak is part of them, so part of the character you are trying to create.

  6. I am finding difficulty in writing Luganda accents because it turns out the words are not as English as I thought eg earth roads are called murram roads in African writing.My tutor and classmates have never heard of the word ‘murram’ and African writers use it a lot because that is the ‘English’ word for it.

  7. The other dialog to watch out for is the way teens or young adults talk to each other. Since there were 3 teens in my story, we had to make it “real”. I too listened to kids of today and even my own adult kids, (they are in their 20’s). Urban dictionary was a wonderful tool too!

  8. When I was doing OU Creative Writing course a while ago, I wondered why I got the best marks and feedback on my poetry and my dialogue — seemed to me like they were literary poles apart in terms of form — thinking imagery and symbolism in description in fiction were closer relations to poetry.

    Then the obvious hit me — they’re both meant to be spoken aloud. So it’s my belief that good dialogue has to reflect the rhythms of speech just as good poetry does and it’s as tricky to capture authentically as it is to write good poetry.

    1. Very good point – and I suppose it chimes with what a number of people have been saying about how it’s a good idea to read your dialogue aloud. I not only agree with that, but go further and read most of my book aloud! (though not when anyone’s in the room).

  9. I don’t think I really got a handle on dialogue until I interviewed my great uncles and great aunts. When I was typing up the transcripts I absorbed their little turns of phrase. Then, when I was editing, I had to turn the transcripts into dialogue. It was an interesting process, and it helped me tremendously.

  10. I think that you have to be careful that you don’t use the same words, tone and style for each character so that you can give them each their own voice too, which can be tricky when writing similar characters. So be sure to give unique words or styles to only one character and this will help make them stand out from the others as well.

    1. I think you’re right that some variety between characters is a good idea – it has to be handled carefully though – a matter of balance and taste, like so much else.

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