One reason that writing dialogue is so tricky is that there is so much that goes into it, and also, there are just so many variables in play. Really great writing takes all of them into account. Now, I’m no dialogue guru or anything like that, but as a student of literature, I’ve noticed these are the things that really make me judge dialogue as excellent. Consider the following criteria when you’re editing:
- WHERE IS THE CHARACTER FROM? Dialect’s much more than an accent. Every region and place has its own turns of phrase. In New Orleans, where I’m from, a “median” is always called a “neutral ground;” “snowballs” are what we call snowcones, and they’re eaten, not thrown; people call you “chère” sometimes; you ask people “how’s your mom an’ dem?”; a group of people is “y’all” or “all y’all,” and everyone knows what “lagniappe” (lán-yap) is: a little something extra.
- CONTRACTIONS. Contractions simplify things. Because of that, when use them when we talk. If I took one thing away from all my linguistics and dialectology classes in college, it’s that speech patterns and language develop over time to favor simplicity and ease of pronunciation. Write what sound natural. Put commas or periods where people naturally would take a breath or pause. Like I said yesterday, dialogue shouldn’t sound like narration. It’s much less complex in structure, because people generally don’t talk in sentences that are full of multiple clauses.
- CLASS AND EDUCATION LEVEL. We all know that people with lots of schooling and who read a lot know more and bigger words and generally use better grammar than those who don’t. Some in this population are pedantic jerks who use big words to show off and/or establish what they deem an intellectual superiority. Others aren’t that way. If your character is a college professor or say, a from the noble class, he’ll speak differently than someone who didn’t do great in school or who is from the uneducated peasantry.
- THE SITUATION AT HAND. Some situations, and some conversation partners, call for greater levels of formality than others. My novels have kings and sorcerers…. I just love writing scenes where non-nobles aren’t quite sure how to speak to the nobility! Or, conversely, where a character’s personality is such that they don’t really care if they’re being mildly insulting or not following protocol.
- RELIGION/PROPRIETY. Yep, your four-letter words. There are various reasons some people make a point of not cursing. Others will use four letter words but avoid saying things they consider blasphemous. Such details can say a lot about a character simply through how he or she chooses to express frustration.
Those are just some of the things that influence how we talk. How tired we are, what mood we’re in, our feelings about the person we’re talking to, our aims regarding the conversation (do we want something from somebody?): all these things influence to great degrees what we say or don’t say and how we choose to say it. Don’t forget that some of the best moments of dialogue involve things that aren’t said, just hinted at. As long as the reader can understand what’s being hinted at, you can have a LOT of fun messing with your characters!!!