Guest Blog by M.J. Pullen: Believable Dialogue

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Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of any piece of quality fiction. Getting two people talking (or occasionally, carefully, more than two) is one of the quickest ways to get out of the head of the author or narrator and into the heart of the story. Dialogue commands attention, reveals character, moves the plot along, inspires emotion, and breaks up blocks of narrative to hold the reader’s attention. To keep the reader transfixed, dialogue must be believable. Here are some of my favorite ways to make sure my dialogue is a seamless bridge between the reader and the character.

  1. Avoid long speeches. In real life, most people don’t make speeches unless they are standing at a podium. To get the reader through more than two or three sentences of uninterrupted dialogue, the writer has to have a large buildup of emotional investment and the scene must earn every sentence uttered with emotional payoff for the reader. You had us at ‘hello,’ Mr. Maguire.
  2. Understand language and dialect. If you’re writing about a college student who lives in the American Northwest, for example, you may wish to avoid using the dialect of a British housewife in her forties. Often writers make these mistakes out of ignorance: they don’t understand the language of a particular area, or their ear for dialect is not well-honed as they think. If you’re writing a dialect, nationality or region with which you are not intimately familiar, do tons of research, and then have someone who is familiar help you edit.
  3. Use words your character knows. Even if you play it safe and write only in your native dialect, it’s critical that you think of a character’s background, personality and education when you select their words. A sassy hairdresser in a rural area will talk differently than someone with a college education in a big city. A new graduate of the police academy uses words differently than a veteran homicide detective. Very few of your characters will talk like someone with an English degree and a desire to impress others with their diction (ahem, that would be you and me). Of course there are exceptions, but they must fit with the character you’re creating.
  4. Keep it simple. Tips #2 and #3 notwithstanding, most people use language that is fairly simple and direct. The more odd, colorful or complex your characters’ dialogue is, the more the reader’s attention will be on the words, not the story. Use unusual words and phrases sparingly and intentionally in your dialogue.
  5. Read out loud. Reading your work out loud can have tremendous benefits of all kinds, but dialogue is a major one. What sounds awkward coming out of your mouth will read awkwardly on the page. Have someone you trust role-play your conversations with you, just like a screenplay, to see what kind of impact they will have on the reader.

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~ by Adrianna Morgan on January 27, 2014.

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