Writing Effective & Realistic Dialogue
by Wayne Zurl
I can do something Nelson DeMille can’t. He admitted so in an interview. Well, not exactly. Although we’re both native Long Islanders, he didn't mention me, but said he has trouble writing dialogue for a woman’s voice. He’s not alone. Sometimes people experience difficulty satisfying the most important rule of dialogue—each character MUST have a unique voice.
Men don’t speak the same as woman . . . and vice versa. Canadians don’t speak the same as people from Tennessee. A twenty-year-old boy doesn't speak like a sixty-five-year-old man. Facts of life.
So, how do we remedy the problem some writers have? Think real people—people you know—actors you’d like to play parts in your story—anyone who you can HEAR.
I don’t have a great imagination. I’d flounder if I tried to write a classic sci-fi novel or a historical romance. But I do have a good memory, and as an ex-cop, I've got plenty of war stories to tell. And I base most of my writing on actual incidents. Quite often, I see the real people who played roles in those real incidents. I hear them, their accents and inflection and delivery. And I duplicate that in the dialogue I write.
I also cheat. For instance, I gave my main character my voice. That made part of my writing life easy. If I would say something in a particular police situation, so will my protagonist, Sam Jenkins. Sam’s wife, Kate, says many of the things my wife might say.
After I get an idea, but before I begin writing, I hold a casting call and assign real faces to the fictionalized characters. I cast someone who would fit well into the role—an acquaintance, the person who actually lived the story, or an actor/actress with a voice and delivery I can replicate.
Other factors are important to dialogue and revolve around you having a good memory. Poor memory? Carry a pad and pen, a mini-recorder, whatever.
Just as you should be jotting down descriptions of places or people you may use some day, you should make notes on speech characteristics.
Two mature women are sitting in a coffee shop.
Ms. A says, “Have you heard what people are saying about Mabel?”
Ms. B replies, “Yes, and I don’t believe it for one minute.”
Two salty old cops are sitting in a gin mill.
Detective A says, “You hear what they’re sayin’ Gallagher did?”
Detective B answers, “Yeah, and that’s bullshit. I know John—never happened.”
Same basic message, but quite different.
That last bit of fluff brings me to my idea of realistic dialogue.
Most people do not speak with grammatical correctness. We may know all the rules, but rarely do we strictly adhere to them. We’re lazy. We’re a product of our environment or locale. Most people speak utilizing contractions quite often and drop “understood’ words.
What did Detective A leave out and shorten? “[Did] you he what they’re sayin’…?”
Writers should keep their narrative grammatically clean, but make dialogue fit a character’s personality.
I read a friend’s manuscript once. He’s an excellent writer with almost flawless research, and, man, can he construct a ripping yarn. But his dialogue sounded stilted, always in the “King’s English.”
His novel about Marines during the Vietnam War opened with the main character being rescued after a brief POW situation. Just after the protagonist, Captain X, jumps into a rising helicopter, he locks his heels on the skids, and bravely hangs out the door shouting in the general direction of the North Vietnamese company commander who “questioned” him quite vigorously.
“You are a vile coward, Tran. If our paths should ever cross, I will not hesitate to kill you.”
I’ve never been a POW, but I remember incidents where I wanted to send my very best regards to someone I didn’t especially care for.
If he took time to say anything, I think Captain X may have said, “You’re a lousy coward, Tran. I see you again, I’ll blow your shit away.” If it were me, I’d probably save my breath and empty a few M-16 magazines in Major Tran’s direction, punctuated by a carefully chosen epithet.
Of course, if Captain X was a British Army officer in the Boer War and not a US Marine in 1968, my comment would have been unnecessary.
I’m happy to report that if readers compliment my work, they often say my dialogue is realistic and easy to read—even when I add dialect. Not everyone agrees about using dialect. But in his book, ON WRITING, Stephen King does. He says, “Write it the way you hear it.” I’ll add, do it in moderation.
For those who scoff at using dialect, I have only two words: HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Bringing it closer to our generation, there’s an excellent book (and movie) called THE HELP that would not have sounded very authentic without the distinctive accents used by author, Kathryn Stockett.
I’d like to think you’ll read something of mine to see if I’m as good with dialogue as I think. But if you don’t, try a guy named Elmore Leonard. Most experts think he’s aces.
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