Hello, welcome to the writer’s journal. I thought we would have a look at writing dialogue in this article. So, without further ado, let’s get straight to the nitty-gritty. What is dialogue to a writer? Well, although we want to carry it over to a reader that it is just like real life conversation – it isn’t. In truth, when real people chat over a coffee or have a beer down the pub, a huge percentage of the conversation is pretty much meaningless. When our characters speak then it should be something of a building block, something that is relevant to the story in some way. However, it should also make for smooth reading and be believable because dialogue is what makes the connection between the character and the reader. One of the more obvious benefits of conversation in prose is that it has a lot of white space, so it gives a page the appearance of being an easy read which translates to more fun. There’s nothing more daunting than seeing page after page of solidly written paragraphs; it feels like you have a mountain to climb before you’ve even started.
A snippet of conversation from Birth of an Assassin by… by me actually:
“I do understand,” he said. “But I’m sure the rest of the family will be able to join you in your promised land soon enough.”
Miriam raised an eyebrow. “Our promised land, Jez, not yours?”
“No, Miriam, not mine. I chose the military life. And I agree with Marx when he said ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’. Some people need a crutch, fine. I don’t.”
In that short piece we can work out that Jez, the protagonist, is Jewish, but has no time for religion, that he is committed to military life and is somewhat detached to all else. Hopefully, this short interaction has told you quite a bit about the character which, in turn, goes towards giving width and depth to the story.
Here’s another piece from the same book
Sharansky said, “Well, Captain, Boris thought we were the traffickers, and when he made the claims, he was in charge of the situation. As for the lieutenant, he’s gone to talk to one of the girls.”
“Is it messy, Sergeant Sharansky?” Otto asked.
“One of the bodies is a bit sticky, sir.”
“Sergeant Mayakovski, bring the car round and make sure there are a couple of body bags in the boot.” Adrik left and Otto turned back to Sharansky. “Sergeant, do you feel your leads have legs, or have these deaths got us turning circles?”
“Depends on whether the girl knows anything. And I suspect she will.”
“Which girl is that?”
And her pimp knows Adrik!
This time we’ve moved the story along while introducing a ‘what happens next’ scenario for the reader or, put another way, we use dialogue to increase pace and bring a little excitement to the scene. As an aside, this dialogue uses profanity’s in the book that brings more depth of feeling to the piece, but that isn’t particularly relevant to the article here, so I’ve cut it. The point is, swearing is fine if it fits in with the characters and situation, but like gratuitous violence; if it isn’t poignant for the piece then don’t use it.
Scenes have moods. If the characters are at odds with each other then the conversation might be cold and abrupt, stilted. If they are friends or lovers the tone will be warm or playful, humorous. But there are a whole host of other situations; threatening, romantic, fearful, one character might feel overwhelmed by a handsome or beautiful stranger they speak to for the first time, the setting might be spooky and the conversation scary, and so it goes. The options are endless, choose your tone of voice well. Also in setting there is the viewpoint of how a character might see things and that should come across in conversation; an American might say, take the elevator to the fifth floor; an Englishman would relay that same information by saying, take the lift to the fourth floor. The first floor to an American is the ground floor to anyone from the UK. Get into the right mindset before speaking on behalf of your character.
Each character is an individual, so let them exist as themselves. Imagine having five characters and then writing dialogue exactly how you might say it. Yep, it wouldn’t sound real; if you are a lumberjack in your day job then you won’t speak like a little old lady, the converse is also true. To write realistic dialogue for each of your people you must put yourself in their shoes; like method acting. If you are new to writing then by all means write as yourself and then change your demeanor to suit the character. That way you get what you want to say out of your head and onto the paper.
Following the conversation
The previous conversation was between two people, Otto and Sharansky. We know this because it was tagged once for each of them. Having revealed the who is who, it is enough to say ‘he said/she said’. Too much use of a person’s name is grating, but too little can lose the reader if the dialogue is a couple of pages long, so it is down to you to keep it balanced; read your work out loud and it should give a little perspective on this.
Times have changed; what was acceptable a century ago doesn’t necessarily fit now and the misspelling of words to fit in with the sound of a character’s voice might well lose the reader of today. A good example is the writings of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Fin and Tom Sawyer, ‘yessum, Massa’ is one simple example. In the UK there are a multitude of dialects as we move through our small island, from ‘Och aye’ in Scotland (although I’m yet to hear a Scotsman say that) to ‘Why aye, Man’ in the North East, ‘Hyupp, lad’ as we move central, and ‘orvight, innit’ further south. The truth is, English becomes inaccessible to the reader who doesn’t belong in the relatively small areas to which it is spoken and to a worldwide audience, well, just don’t go there. If two characters from different countries speak to each other then the books theme character should speak in English while the foreigner can get away with shuffling the words. Look at this piece from The Turkish Connection, yes, another one of mine:
“But enough of my trouble – sorting things out for you is what’s important. It’s just a great pity we lost Dmitri the way we did. Unfortunately, that kind of thing happens anywhere. Drug dealers can be violent people.” Beyrek nodded to himself as if in sympathy. “At least we got his killer.”
“Yes, that good, and what you say true,” Vladislav said. “But reason I come is because I do not dodge responsibility. I wanted tell your face. I wrong to leave people here. You to stay running business as did for Otto. I see now Otto knew what doing he was. So, as you say, pity Dmitri, but things happen. I not stay. I catch next flight back, only wanted tell you myself.”
Beyrek is Turkish and the setting is in Turkey, so we have him speaking in plain English. Vladislav is Russian and trying to speak Turkish to a Turk, so his words are poorly spoken. Of course, if Vladislav had been more than a fleeting character in this book then I wouldn’t have used this method to show that he is foreign, I would have instead used characteristics that might be attributed to him being a Russian.
This text is by no means exhaustive, but it is a reasonable starting point, see what you can do with it.