We meet our friends on the street, or in a bar or a coffee shop and we talk talk talk. And so do our characters. Sometimes those wild and wacky imaginary friends of ours just won’t be quiet, and it drives us nuts. Other times they behave like a thirteen-year-old forced to go on the old family vacation, sitting in stony silence staring at her signal-less phone, refusing to participate with those people who claim to be her parents and who dragged her off to the wilderness for something called ‘family time.’
But when they DO choose to participate in the conversation, how do we make them sound natural? There is a lot of argument in writers forums on this subject, but I go from the point of view of the reader. What is easiest for the reader to follow?
Take a good long look at the works of established writers whose dialogue is crafted in such a way that you, as the the reader, didn’t feel like you were reading it: you felt like you were living it. Did they get too fancy, and uber creative?
No, they kept it simple, and showed you the conversation.
First off–my pet peeve: people do not smile, snort, chuckle, or smirk dialogue. They don’t giggle it either, but they DO say it, they reply it, and many times they ask it. As long as you mainly stick to said, replied, answered, and asked, your reader won’t even notice the attributions are there. If you are writing genre-fiction, there is no need to get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to ‘John said’ (not said John, which sounds too old-fashioned these days.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Sarah uttered or a Paula retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.
You can skip using dialog tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and not for more than a few exchanges. Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.
Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue:
Back in the office with the door shut tight, Junior and Pap plotted the special hunting trip for the nice tabloid man. Junior unbraided his hair and pulled it back into his customary long ponytail. Off came the blanket, which he told Pap smelled musty, and the headband. “Tell Johnny thanks for the loan of his buckskins,” he said as he stripped them off, stuffed them into a gym bag, and then pulled on a pair of slacks. “I’ll need them tomorrow for this picnic. That idiot wanted to leave at dawn! I told him after breakfast, so what do you think—about ten o’clock? I usually don’t go to bed until dawn.”
Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.
Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.
This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,. Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied. This is why we don’t want to make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely—because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.
We frequently speak this way in real life, but we don’t want it in our work so I recommend you avoid using them. When a character overuses exclamations, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!” “Blech!”
For example, have you ever met a person who drones on with a long “A-a-and a-a-ahhhhhhhhh….” holding conversations hostage with meaningless syllables? These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit the guilty party is unaware they are doing it. They’re often quite hurt if you try to hurry them along.
It’s a habit that we don’t enjoy in a conversation, and don’t want to read in novel, so I recommend you don’t begin more than a few sentences with thinking syllables like “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”
These are difficult speech behaviors to convey, because they are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern and after that, if it is important, mention occasionally the way their habits annoy other characters.
What about accents? Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, says “When writing for a character with an accent, it is tempting to render the character’s speech phonetically using nonstandard spellings. However, this practice is risky and should be avoided, unless you specifically want to emphasize how a character speaks. First, there’s the question of how accurate to be. The more accurate the phonetic spelling, the more frustrating it will be to read.”
Don’t overdo spelling them out. You have no idea how hard it is to wade through that:
Translation: “My feet hurt and I’m feeling dead tired. I need to sit and rest a while.” I think you could get away with just using knackered and kip to convey the general idea, and not lose the reader’s interest. If you choose to replace ‘to’ with ‘ter’ for a specific character, be sure to do it consistently and consider leaving it at that.
I have walk-on characters who are minotaurs, and the physical transformation from man to minotaur affects their ability to speak, some more than others. They also come from a different world. This posed a dilemma for me. Because the lower ranked minotaur soldiers make only brief appearances, I can get away with a bit more of a dialect or a speech impediment. The higher ranking ones made it through the remaking with more of their wit and abilities intact, and therefore speak more clearly. I mention they have an accent and leave it at that.
More and more, I am leaning away from writing heavy accents into my dialogue. I recommend going light and limiting the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents especially if you are trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background. Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent and use them in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible. It’s very easy to go over the top with it, and then the character becomes a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.
This winds up my rant on annoying habits we don’t want to inject into our dialogue. Accents, dialects, verbal tics–these are things we need to convey, but we must be mindful of our readers’ supply of patience. Show a little, and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.