Making it Real (Dialogue)

A reader posted: What i find really hard about dialogue is how do you make it sound very good, and how to describe the person saying it. Could you post something that teaches people how to describe how the person is speaking?

Dialogue is one of the hardest parts of writing to master (Point of view is up there, too).  The writer has to think about speech mannerisms, accent, and word choice as well as what the speaker is doing that can convey their feelings.  Also, dialogue in books is hardly ever written like real people talk.  Real people use boring dialogue!

1.  Here’s an exercise for you.  Go to your local mall, food court, or coffee shop–whereever groups of people gather.  Bring a pad of paper and a pencil.  Sit where you can overhear a conversation and write down everything that is said.  Don’t write any descriptions of tone of voice or mannerisms, just the words.

Go home and read it back.  Pretty bad, huh?  You can write better dialogue than that!  (if you actually try this exercise, post part of the dialogue here in comments, or write about your experience)

2.  Another dialogue exercise you can do is to closely watch people you speak to, or people who talk to each other when you are around.  Watch what they do with their eyes.  Do they look at the person they are speaking to?  Do their eyes look everywhere else but not at the person?  Are they focused on food or TV or video games?

Also watch hands.  Does the speaker wave them around?  stick them in a pocket? play with something?

And expressions.  Learn to recognize a grin, a grimace, and a growl.  (others, too, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration)

3.  Close your eyes and listen to dialogue.  How would you describe the tone of a person’s voice?  Is it shrill?  deep?  full of tears? Pay attention to the details of what you are hearing and you will be able to describe it better.

The goal, of course, is to convey emotion by showing rather than telling.  Your character should not have to say, “I’m sad.”  Try this instead:

Suzy slumped in her chair, her chin to her chest.  Her hair fell across her face, hiding her eyes from me.  I could see her shoulders shaking, though.  Was she crying?  “Suzy, are you okay?”

She choked on her words as she tried to answer.  “I. . . guess so.”  She looked up at me as a tear escaped, sliding down her stricken face.

Got it? Suzy’s sad.  But she didn’t say so, did she?  She SHOWED us.

YOU TRY IT!  Pick an emotion (happiness, anger, curiosity, pain, tired) and think about how someone SHOWS that emotion.  What do they do?  What do they say?  Write some dialog that shows an emotion.  Go on, give it a try!

On my Kindle: Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

6 responses to “Making it Real (Dialogue)”

  1. Hye Linda, Great ideas!

    I know from teaching younger students that this is such a hard area. Some kiddos just don’t get it. Why can’t they just tell you? I think it really leads back to inference skills, in reading and in intrapersonal skills. If they can’t read between the lines, then how can they write between the lines?

    I gave my 3rd graders a short dialogue exchange in French (which none of them spoke) and they used their inference skills and understanding of prosody to figure out what was being said. It was really exciting for them when they figured it out, and for me it showed an interesting connection between my good readers and my good content writers.

    1. Oh, I like that idea, Ang! It’s a good way to show them how much they actually KNOW about nonverbal communication!

  2. Harold’s father inserted another screw into the chair he was working to assemble. “Daddy, what are you doing?” Harold asked, coming into the workshop. Harold struggled to see what his dad was doing because of all the tools and knick knacks that were kept inside. He hopped onto a stool that was meant for sitting on when the worker was tired. Up there, he could see everything, including his father and the chair he was working on. Even though he was a bit more than three feet tall, he still stumbled through all the tools to where his father sat. He took a seat next to him and watched him work carefully.

  3. Ha! It’s not dialogue unless someone else talks. Maybe have Dad say something like, “Watch out for the tools, Harold.” and maybe have Harold struggle to see, say something about that and have Dad put him on the stool. Great paragraph, needs more talkin’.

  4. aleena francisco Avatar
    aleena francisco

    I did the exercise you suggested in class for about 3 minutes and this is what I heard.

    “Hey look! You can see…”

    “How does this work?”

    “Oh, it’s actually ten. See here…”

    You’re right. It’s not all that good dialogue.

  5. I heard:
    “Eashant, Eashant, Eashant look wHat I wrote!”

    “I’m never like that!”

    “You can fix it”

    “Well then comment on the post!”

    “Whoa! That is so adorable!”

    I think the diolouge is dry and boring.

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