Five Suggestions to Make Your Dialogue Sparkle
By Katherine Kingston
1. Leave out the empty, meaningless phrases. Have you ever eavesdropped on people talking? (See number 5 below). One thing you’ll notice is how much people space out the actual content of what they say with meaningless words and phrases. “You know,” “Like I said,” “Well…” Edit those out. We know they’re there, but reproducing it in your written dialogue weakens it and makes it boring. If you’re trying to convey something about the character with it, use it once or twice, but don’t keep putting it in. It gets boring quickly. And we all spend a minute or two making meaningless chatter when we first answer the phone or meet a friend on the street. As authors, though, we don’t need to include the questions about how they’re doing, whether they’re enjoying the weather, how the wife and kids are, unless it’s absolutely necessary for the story.
2. Make sure it stays in character. A college professor doesn’t talk the same way your plumber does. Complete sentences, long words, careful logic – those can work for the college professor. They can work for the plumber, too, but you’d better let us know why that plumber is discussing Nietzche instead of joints and traps and why the Yankees are tanking this season. And vice versa for the college professor. Not that he wouldn’t discuss baseball, but he isn’t as likely to describe one of the players as a “worthless bum.” If he does, we need to know why he’s talking like your neighborhood plumber.
3. Make sure it fits the situation. Although I was born in New York, I live in the southern part of the United States and my husband is from somewhere south of Podunk, South Carolina. But he’s got a Master’s degree, and he doesn’t talk like someone from the backwoods…until he gets on the phone with his father. His soft, southern accent becomes far more country, and his phrasing changes to match. We all change the way we speak depending on context. Almost all professions have their own lingo that their practictioners use among themselves, and sometimes it’s all but incomprehensible to the rest of. People talk differently at dinner parties, at sporting events, at business dinners, when speaking to children, etc.
4. Making the dialogue fit the character and context does not mean using a whole lot of strange spelling and punctuation to make the point. If you have to drop the “g” on the end of “ing” words or spell “here” “heah” to convey a New England accent, do so sparingly. A couple of times will make the point. In a lot of cases, you can do it all with word choice. My favorite example comes from a carpenter who was working on some renovations on our house. He once told us a long, rambling story about someone trying to hire some help to get a big project finished on the Friday before a holiday weekend. He called everyone he couldn’t think of but couldn’t find anyone to assist because “They’d all left out and gone fishing.” Do I have to tell you that he didn’t pronounce the final “g” on the “fishing”?
5. Eavesdrop. Even transcribe it, if you can, to study later. There’s nothing like listening, really listening to how people actually talk. Eavesdropping is particularly helpful because you can listen to the words, intonation, and pronunciation without having to process and react to the content. Notice the different speech patterns. Try to listen to different people: teenagers don’t talk like your doctor; street people don’t talk like bankers; soldiers don’t talk like police offices. Yes, that last one is often a subtle difference, but it’s real and if you’re writing about either law enforcement officers or soldiers, you really should understand the differences.
About Katherine Kingston:
Katherine Kingston has written somewhere around two dozen erotic novels, novellas, and short stories. Most of her novels and novellas are currently published by Ellora’s Cave, but she has one novella with Whispers Publishing, and has had stories in a number of print publications. Her stories cover a range of genres from historical to paranormal to science fiction and contemporary. Most of them include hot, kinky sex, particularly BDSM. Learn more about Katherine and her books at her website: http://www.katherinekingston.com
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