Creative Writing Tip: DO listen to others, for dialogue’s sake!

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Are you listening to me????

Last summer, I wrote a couple of posts about the DO’s of creative writing and the DON’Ts of writing. I thought I’d come back to that with a series of posts about more “creative writing DO’s.” And the first  concerns dialogue.

Do listen to those around you and note how they talk.

It takes a while to learn how to craft realistic dialogue. Even if you’re a Grammar Nazi, you have to realize that people don’t talk grammatically. They just don’t. They don’t follow all the rules. They end sentences with prepositions, and they use the gender neutral “they” even when grammatically a singular pronoun is called for. (“Someone’s leaving. Let me tell them goodbye….”)

Also, speech is as much about rhythm as anything else. It has to “sound” natural. You’ll notice pretty quickly that people don’t speak in full sentences, especially in a common, informal conversation. They use lots of contractions (much more so than you’d expect to find in say, narration segments.) And they’ll sometimes backtrack and start a sentence over. To some degree, I think it’s a good idea to include these things in dialogue. (Be careful about too much backtracking, though. It will get annoying to your readers.)

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If your books or short stories are set in the real world, pay attention to dialect differences that can really make your dialogue come alive. I lived six years in Alabama, and even though I’m from New Orleans, I learned so much about the Deep South and how it’s different! People there are always fixin’ to do something, instead of preparing to. And did you know double modal verbs are common in the American South, a holdover from Victorian English? Instead of saying, “I might be able to go,” someone from Alabama or Georgia would say, “I might could go” or “I may can go.” In fact, President Bill Clinton (from Arkansas) did this very thing in an interview once (according to my linguistics and dialectology professor), and announcers said he was self-correcting an error; that he meant to say “could” but said, “might” and then fixed the slip. Not the case at all! He was using a double modal structure.

Different backgrounds, different social situation: different speech patterns.

Now, my novels are set in a fantasy kingdom. And one of my favorite things about writing dialogue is that my characters span from kings to farm girls to soldiers. None of them speak the same way. It makes sense that the king’s language would be much more formal, deliberate, and educated than that of the commoner characters. The fact is, none of your characters should speak the same. Think of all the different ways a person could excuse himself from something because of a prior engagement:

  • I really can’t, I’m sorry. I have plans.
  • I’m afraid I can’t. I’m busy.
  • It’s just not gonna work out.
  • I have another obligation.
  • I have a scheduling conflict.
  • I got somethin’ to do already.
  • I’m booked up.
  • No can do.
  • I’m not free.
  • I can’t make that.

Some of them are pretty neutral in terms of education level/formality. Some are business formal, and others are markedly informal. Some of these the same person might say to different people in different circumstances: to a boss about a business meeting versus a weekend outing with a friend. Some a particular character might never say for one reason or another. None of my nobles would ever conceivably say “It’s just not gonna work out.” Someone in a tavern? Sure.

A word of warning

It’s good to be conscious of your characters’ unique voices, but don’t obsess over such issues, especially in a first draft situation. As long as you keep dialogue from bordering on stilted and unrealistic in a first draft, you’re doing fine. You can always edit here and there and tweak things later. That’s what editing is for. You won’t know your characters’ voices well enough in a first draft sometimes to make their speech really come alive; that comes later. And that’s fine. No one’s first drafts are pretty much ever readable. (At least, I can guarantee you mine aren’t.)

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11 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: DO listen to others, for dialogue’s sake!

  1. Great post Victoria….more helpful for our future writing.Thanks for your valuable information.

  2. I love writing dialogue! It’s why I like to do screenplays so much – dialogue and action, without that pesky description. haha! When I taught creative writing to students I gave them eavesdropping assignments and read the dialogue only of fun books (Winnie the Pooh, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) to see if they could identify the speakers. It’s a great exercise!

    • oh my gosh that’s GREAT Jennings!!! I always wished I could write screenplays. I just don’t know I’m cut out for it. I jut adore the idea of that “identify the speaker” exercise. Brilliant!!! 🙂

  3. Great stuff! Yes, putting words in our characters’ mouths can be tricky. Get to know them well in advance of writing, then watch them speak to each other in your mind, like watching a play (or, rather, a hidden camera TV show). We love ya, Victoria. 🙂

    • thanks Mark!!! I love that idea of “watching” your characters. I’ve never thought of it that way but that’s a wonderful idea. I just might have to implement it myself 🙂

  4. toninelsonmeansbusiness

    What a great post! Your experience with the how people talk differently in different areas brought back an experience from a couple of years ago. We decided to learn sign language. I went to some classes along with my husband. Our friend’s mother was deaf so we could now communicate with her which was wonderful. When we met some deaf people from other areas they signed differently! Then I started noticing that even sign language videos were different. California sign was different than those that signed in Florida. This I was told is quite common. Just like different people have different dialects so do deaf people.

    • I’ve heard that about sign language too!!! We talked about it in one of my linguistics class, I think. I had no idea about sign language dialects before then…. (Actually, I kind of thought it varied from country to country only. Never realized it was different in FL and CA! That makes perfect sense, though) I’ve never learned how to sign, though I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to know how. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story, Toni. That’s awesome!

  5. Pingback: Saying Hello to Goodbye | Hand of Ananke

  6. Pingback: Writing Dialogue - A Worded Life

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