Keeping Dialogue REAL

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Whoa, that convo would never take place!

Ever read a novel and have that thought come to mind while perusing the dialogue? That situation happened to me this week. Twice, in fact. One incident involved a YA novel. As an educator, I hear enough teen talk to know what's real and what's phony as a $3 bill. The other time I was critiquing a short story. Everything flowed in the piece, except the dialogue. Nothing like stealing that "feel good" feeling from a great piece of literature. (Insert frown here.)

Writers need to keep dialogue real; otherwise, readers will tune out. What are the best ways to pump up the reality volume of what your characters are saying? These tips will help you fine tune your characters' messages:
  • Listen and Learn Unless you isolate yourself from the outside world, conversations that you can learn from take place all the time. Call if eavesdropping, but if you just sit and listen to people talk, you'll learn to pick up speech patterns, key words, phrasing, and rhythm - all which will help you write a realistic scene. For example, I attended a comedy show last night and paid attention to the comedian riff with an audience member. The comedian used timing to his advantage, creating this natural conversation with the guy in the front row. As the dialogue continued, even the audience member seemed to pick up on the established rhythm the comedian employed. It was a perfect example of listening and learning how individuals talk and respond to each other. One of the best methods for improving dialogue technique may require popcorn. Watch a movie and discover how each character treats the dialogue. It's more than words. Dialogue also means you're creating a mood, setting up a reaction, and propelling a character into new situations.

  • Precision Trumps Surplus Once you've mastered listening, put your skills to the test. Dialogue shouldn't provide full disclosure. Instead, writers need to discern which information should be offered through dialogue. Info overload makes dialogue sound stilted. What's the best advice? Precision. Precision. Precision. A character's dialogue should make a point. Otherwise, it sounds fake.

  • The Rule of Three Repetition can be a writer's best tool to drive home a point. When writing stand up comedy, you give two examples and then bam! hit the audience with a twist the third time. It's the same "rule of three" idea with fiction. Writers employ a key word or phrase three times in a row to emphasize a point. Moderation is the key with the rule of three. Too much of a good thing makes dialogue sound phony.

  • Speak Up Once you've completed a scene, read it aloud. Do the words match the intended tone and message? Or does the conversation sound bogus? Sometimes I'll record a scene as a .wav or MP3 file, play it back, and hear where changes are needed. If you're part of a critique group, read snippets of dialogue to group members and use their input to decide whether or not the words flow or if the conversation needs to be rewritten.

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock summed up realistic dialogue when he said, "Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms."

Strong, realistic dialogue adds a powerful element to a story. It's a sound clip, a byte of everyday life inserted into a new situation. Make your sound clip worth listening to.

by LuAnn Schindler. A freelance journalist, more of LuAnn's writing can be found at her website.

Graphic design by LuAnn Schindler


Unknown said...

Thank you for the tips...I tend to read my dialogue out loud. I need to "hear" the conversation taking place to make sure it sounds like a realistic discussion...and it helps a lot. Thanks again.

Danielle Rose said...

Great advice. I love how you record your out-loud reading to better hear where it needs work. That's an excellent idea!

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