Dialogue is conversation—language as we speak it. Forget that you are writing, and listen. Otherwise your characters will sound stiff and pedantic. No one speaks perfectly correctly in real life: if your character does, he/she will not sound real.
Characters come to life when they speak. Good dialogue is the key to making your characters come alive. Hear the conversation in your head. Say it aloud. Then write it down. Playwright Arthur Miller said he could not create characters unless he could hear them speak. In his early days he spoke the words aloud: later on he was able to hear them in his head. That is what every writer needs to do.
Anyone can create flat, two-dimensional, “cardboard cutout” characters. The hard thing is to create someone the reader wants to know. In real life we can recognize one another by voice. If your dialogue is good, every character will have a distinctive, recognizable “voice,” too.
Listen to people’s speech patterns, their peculiarities, hesitations, repetitions, wrong use of words. You have to listen to get your dialogue right and make it individual, so that it carries the particular stamp of the speaker.
One author wrote, “I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking.” We use words to express our thoughts and feelings. You have to be your character to speak with his voice. When you know what he is thinking and feeling, the dialogue will come.
Dialogue in a story:
– helps to create and reveal character
– moves the story forward
– imparts essential information
– provides drama and excitement
Get to the dialogue as soon as possible in your story. Go for speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a heavy piece of prose at the start. Conversation is far better than description. And action is better still.
This excerpt was published in MAI’s booklet, Effective Story Writing by Pat Alexander. This and more practical tools for writing are available on MAI’s website.
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