Writing Dialogue = Death

ImagePhoto Credit: WritersDock

Let me first tell you that this post will NOT tell you how to write dialogue in your work. Because you likely know better than I do how to do that. Instead I’ll be discussing my thoughts on the topic.

Back in May 2013 when I was on the verge of walking across the stage at my university’s graduation, I became overly anxious about the whole prospect of writing a book. I’d now been telling people for months that I would be writing books after graduation and now the time was finally arriving. I was terrified that i wouldn’t be able to do it at all. But one of the things I was most scared of was writing dialogue. You might have just crinkled your brow because dialogue isn’t scary, right? Well think about it. Casual conversation is not scripted. Sentences are not always complete and people generally speak quite differently from the way they write. There’s quite a bit to take into account before writing dialogue. At least in my opinion.

I mean, what if the dialogue I wrote seemed unnatural. Or forced. Or made no sense at all. Or the reader couldn’t tell who was talking. Or what if all of the characters sound exactly the same? See, you may believe you’re pretty good at writing dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’ve had readers tell me the dialogue in my first book is completely natural and then at least one other reader say that people don’t talk the way my characters in my book did. Everything in one’s writing is subjective and dialogue is definitely so.

What are your thoughts writing dialogue? Do you feel that you have a solid grasp on the whole thing or is it something maybe you struggle with? I’d like to think I’m somewhere in the middle.

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71 thoughts on “Writing Dialogue = Death

  1. In my opinion, when I read your book I thought the dialogue in the action sequences was really great! But for the slower/romantic scenes, certain parts seemed forced (but I’m also not much of a romantic, and so that might be a biased opinion). I have issues with dialogue too, especially when I try to show what kind of personality my characters have.

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    • Thanks. You hated it. šŸ˜¦ Haha. But even though I haven’t read that thing in months I think I got Sydney’s dialogue the most right out of every character. Just happened that way. At least I think it’s the best.

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  2. Sometimes, I feel I have a really good grasp on dialogue. Other times, I read what I wrote and I boggle at how I could have ever thought that felt remotely natural. It’s pretty give and take, and there’s also other factors to think of, too, like dialects, and whether this character would say these words or talk like that, and how to make sure that not everyone in your book talks like you, because not everyone in the world is going to talk like you. So I can totally see where a fear of dialogue can come from.
    For me, the easiest way to keep dialogue in check is to read it out loud. Adopt the demeanor you want your character to have (is it really casual? Is this a lord speaking to an underling, or just friends having a chat?). I took some acting classes throughout my education, so maybe that helps me being able to “set the scene” and consider how people interact with each other in words, but I think it’s a tactic that could help with anything. Get others to read it, too. A new set of eyes can do wonders for pointing out potential clunkers. And you’re totally right on the subjective aspects of it. What I think might be completely natural might seem absolutely absurd to someone else. So you just got to stick with what feels right for you.

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  3. I have a problem with using too much dialogue. I tend to talk a lot and in return, my characters like to talk a lot as well. That’s just one of those things I have to work on.

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  4. For me, it differs from one day to the next, from one character to the next. Sometimes I read a dialogue I’ve written and am really impressed; other times I’m completely embarrassed. It can also be challenging to give each character their own voice. I can’t say for sure if I’m good or bad at dialogue, but I’ve definitely improved over the years. šŸ™‚ Good topic.

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  5. I love writing dialogue. I don’t know if that means I’m particularly good at it, but it’s always the description, rather than dialogue, that I always get nailed for in my critique groups.

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  6. I quite enjoy writing dialogue using local dialects, otherwise every character would have very clipped English accents which wouldn’t work at all! I agree with you that it’s very tricky to get it right in the written form. To portray a local twang I have to say everything out loud, slowly, several times over (I’m a bit of a mimic at heart)….I’m just glad no-one can actually see or hear me as I do it šŸ™‚

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  7. I like writing dialogue, although I’m not very good at it. I struggle with showing the personalities of my characters in the way they speak, and they often end up sounding all the same. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and worries šŸ™‚

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  8. I’m terrible at dialogue; meanwhile, my sister is great at writing natural dialogue while mine sounds so forced.

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  9. I agree with another commenter above. I say everything out loud to myself after I’ve written it. Both dialogue and exposition. Because dialogue is the HARDEST part of writing for me. Sometimes it flows naturally, but other times it’s SO tempting to fall back into writing pages of description and scenery and inner turmoil and blah, blah, blah.

    So, yeah… I talk to myself quite a bit when I’m writing dialogue. It’s the only way I can think of to make it sound real. And it’s one of the top questions I ask all my beta readers: do my characters sound distinct, or do they all sound alike.

    Dialogue = hard = brain overworked = mush.

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  10. I don’t mind dialogue at all, although I’ve heard it’s one of the harder things to write. I think I make it “easy” because I hand it over to my characters and let them come up with what would be natural for them. Sometimes conversations can take off in interesting ways – I’ve got one character who tells sarcastic jokes. Thing is, I’ve never heard them before, so I burst out laughing. And yes, I keep those. It’s true to his character and if his jokes make me laugh, they probably work on others, too.

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    • Well I think everyone would want to do that. And then the conversations turn into something you didn’t intend. I don’t know.

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      • No, not really. You know very quickly if a conversation heads in the wrong direction and you stop there and backtrack. You don’t have to let it run.

        I’m talking more about a character using the words they would choose to convey the message. A ten year-old girl will speak differently to an old man. She will have different concerns. A CEO in a city will speak virtually a different language to a rural farmer – just in word choice. Basically, you don’t want all the dialogue to sound as though it has come from one person – the writer. You want it to carry the nuances of the individual characters, and that means listening to them (AKA knowing them).

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      • That’s probably the number one thing I struggle with. The characters sounding different from one another. I think I did a better job with some of my characters than others in my first book.

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      • Yep, some characters flow more easily than others, that’s true.

        Cheers to you. šŸ™‚

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  11. I thought I was the only person struggling with dialogue! I truly hate it and wish I could avoid it all together but I’ve learned to let go of that fear and let things be. I guess the more you worry and analyze, the more fake or flat it starts to sound so I just write it and get back to it much later with a fresh view and start tweaking it.

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  12. I actually like writing dialogue; it’s tricky, but I enjoy the challenge of it. It takes a lot to get it just right. My writing professor did this really great exercise with us last semester during which he sent us out on campus and had us eavesdrop on conversations. Our first assignment was to just jot down some interesting conversations we overheard to make sure we got the punctuation right. (You’re right, people don’t always speak in full sentences, etc., especially if they’re making jokes or being weird, which made that part a lot harder than it sounded.) The next week we stepped it up, adding in basic descriptors and “he said/she said” type stuff. I always worry about walking that fine line between making sure the reader knows who is speaking and being way too repetitive about it. And finally he had us recreate the scene entirely in writing. It was really helpful! One thing that really struck me was how important body language can be to a conversation. Oddly enough, the dialogue doesn’t actually always speak for itself.

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  13. Dialogue in fiction should be different than the way real people talk. Real people meander and add lots of filler words like um, uh, like. Readers expect the conversations characters have to make sense and have a purpose. I think if your characters don’t sound like real people, that’s a good thing. I just posted about this on my own blog but I listen to films and TV shows to pick up good fictional dialogue. I also watch with the subtitles on so that I am hearing it and reading it. I also think reading the dialogue you’ve written aloud helps to catch anything that sounds unnatural or that doesn’t fit with your story.

    Another great post! Thanks for once again giving me something to think about and happy writing!

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  14. I find that the more I can relate to my character, the more natural his or her dialogue sounds. If I can really get into the head of the character, I can think, act, and speak like that person would and make the character come alive for the reader.

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  15. I think that as a writer, I am starting to (FINALLY) learn to ignore that one person that tells you your work is wrong. A fellow blogger read one page — ONE PAGE — of one of my books and wrote me a THREE PAGE email telling me how horrible my writing was and how I was destined to fail, etc. Meanwhile, I’ve had several beta readers give a lot of compliments and their only criticisms were occasional typos or where I used the wrong caliber gun, things like that. But I got SO hung up on what the one blogger said was wrong, I set out on a mission to rewrite everything Id ever written “correctly.” It sounded clumsy and I am now in the process of putting it back the way it was with only leaving a few minor changes. (Hence, that’s why I posted today asking for help from other writers….because my confidence was shaken.) So back to you, I think your dialog is probably excellent just the way it is. What I do sometimes in a scene where I’m not sure of how it will sound is have someone else read it out loud to me. If they don’t stumble when reading it, it probably flows just fine. Good luck and great post! šŸ˜€

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    • I really need to do that. I’ve never read my writing out loud or had someone do it for me.

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      • It makes a HUGE difference. Just make sure the person you get to read it to you can read really well. And I’m not trying to be funny, I had someone read to me and I wondered if my work was that clumsy. Then I had her read from a magazine and I realized that she just stumbled over words when reading out loud. When they read at first, just try not to think about what to change, but just listen. Then have them read it again if you think there might be anything to edit and fix it as you go along that time. šŸ™‚

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      • Hmm. Well I’ve got the perfect person for the job. Thanks!

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      • Excellent! šŸ™‚

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  16. I really like this post. For me, I enjoy writing dialogue because I feel its easier to show the character’s personality. However as a writer, I am curious to know how the reader views my dialogue–would they feel the same way I feel about it? I think it helps to have feedback from others.

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  17. I try to write dialogue as if I were eavesdropping on someone. If I nail my character though it seems more natural while if I try stuff words in my characters mouth if comes off as trite

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    • I just realized that I might do the same thing. Cause I try to write as if I were in the room listening to them speak without them knowing. Hmm. Like a hidden camera.

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