Writing Dialogue by Storyteller

Writing dialogue can be complicated if you try to stick to a rigid format. For example, if you are trying to make it clear who is saying what, you wind up with some dull adjectives, verbs that are passive for the most part, and a reader skimming as they realize who is speaking anyway. In our experience, if the dialogue between characters shows differences in “speaking” and different ways of speaking, it can be much easier than- ” ‘Okay,’ John said.” So how do you do it?

One way is to listen to people around you having a discussion, or even an argument. How do they speak? One with voice high-pitched and one with a lower voice? One shouting, one calm and subdued? Or both trying to talk at the same time, getting louder and louder to out do the other? Or the best to listen to is those who have different speech patterns. One could be from New England, while the other is from the Southern states. Fun ones are those with a burbling vocabulary and the “down-home” speaker. These make for interesting dialogue.

A problem with dialogue can come with trying to capture the different nuances of the speakers. If, for instance, you are listening to someone who has spent time in the state of, say, Mississippi, you need to write what they say in the way they say it. Capturing this means you have to HEAR their words, the way they say them, and translate it onto the page. John may say, “Did y’all see that there big ol’ turkey jes flying’ ’round like he owns the place?” That is how John talks. That lets your reader hear the way John actually speaks. If you choose to clean up John’s language because it doesn’t sound “right” to you by writing down “Did you all see that big old turkey just flying around like he owns the place?” you can lose the flavor of his southern drawl and his true speech.

Or if you are writing John’s words and he comes from the northeast, you might write, “Did ya see the turkey? Yup. Actin’ like he owns it all.” There’s a difference in speech, obviously.

It isn’t easy to capture slang, words cut off or elongated in different cultures, different environments, and requires true LISTENING. The trick is to get the sounds/words of these characters in you head–literally. When you hear them speak as you write, you are able to capture their essence, distinguish them from one another. As the speakers change, you have shown them changing without ‘he/she said’ at the end of every line of dialogue. Your reader is following the speech patterns without having to stop and figure out who is saying what.

Yes, you will have to refresh their memory by saying one person or another said something and it helps if you add how they wave their hands in frustration or bow their heads as they speak softly. But this adds dimension to your characters, makes them distinct and embeds them into your reader’s mind as you go on.

The best advice is to write as you listen, i.e., “y’all” vs. “you all” or “you guys” vs. “You-uns.” It is sometimes difficult to get the right sounds written out, but you can do it! Write down what you hear in your head from the person speaking. Stop and read it back, aloud. Does it sound like that person? If it doesn’t, play with it until you capture it. And if it all still eludes you, fall back on phonetics. Write it simply as it sounds phonetically and you will capture the unique speech you want your reader to hear.

Play with dialogue. It will enhance your writing and give you a deeper appreciation of the way people speak and express themselves! Have fun y’all, and you-uns out there, too!

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Judy Kukuruza’s book “One Body, Many Souls” can be found on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2FuA241; Their website is at https://onebodymanysouls.com/. Their blog is at https://wolvescrowsandspirituality.home.blog.

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