By Nathan Seim
At first, writing dialogue was extremely difficult for me. No matter what I wrote, when I actually went back to read it, I found what I had written was usually lifeless, dry, and boring. I thought for quite a while that dialogue was the hardest part of writing fiction, but I just figured I would improve with practice.
Months of practice did help, but there was still something missing. Gavin might have been a little better than I, but really he had the same problem. Our dialogue just wasn’t alive.
Finally, “when all hope seemed lost” (dramatic effect), we figured out the issue. We didn’t know our characters, and if you don’t know someone, how can you know what they would say or how they would say it? We hadn’t known it, but in our first draft, our characters lacked dimension and personality.
At that point, we really started cracking down, and, by the time we went through are first chapter again, they were already fleshing out, and, sure enough, our dialogue was starting to crackle. We were getting things like personality, undertones, implications, and (Gasp!) inflection.
The moral here is if you feel something is wrong with your dialogue, but you don’t know what, check and see if you really know your characters. Not just what they do and look like, but what they want and need, what they detest, why they do things, and the way their mind works. Speech tells someone’s life story in implications and hints, and if there is no life story to tell, their speech will probably be dry as a scorched pork chop. At least, those are my thoughts on it.
1. Take the time you need to build a real character. Scenes in which people casually talk and interact are great for this, because one’s personality under incredible pressure is just a magnification of one’s personality in normal circumstances.
2. If you are trying to write in dialect, and it isn’t working, try writing in your native accent.
3. If possible, try to write in such a way that you do not need to narrate how your character is speaking. (i.e. he shouted, she said softly, she stated, he intoned, etc.) It’s better if your context shows how they are speaking, and beyond that it is left to the reader’s imagination.
4. If one wording feels more grammatically correct but a different wording fits the character better, always fit it to the character. In real life, dialogue isn’t usually grammatically correct. Say it aloud. Feel it.
5. Try to think of someone you know who is similar to your character, and imagine them saying your line in the situation you have built.
All these things will really help make your dialogue feel real, at least… That’s my take on it.