As a novelist you’ve hit upon a truly unique story idea. It involves exotic locations, but they are places you’ve been. You know you can recreate the look and feel of the locale in a way that will surely make it live for your reader. Your plot it tight and imaginative. Your characters are colorful, your villain truly evil, your main characters sympathetic, your supporting characters are entertaining. You have a sense of narration that is clever and compelling, but there is one thing that still bothers you:
Your story could be the best idea to come down the pike in decades, but if your characters speak woodenly, if they use words that do not fit their nature, if they use dialect that is clumsy, if they use outdated jargon or slang, in short, if they sound like they were written by a new writer, you have a problem.
There are endless, and weighty resources available to help you craft the words that “come from the mouths” of your characters, but is it really that hard? I say no. The biggest problem people have is writing dialogue like writing instead of writing it like speaking. The reader can always tell the difference, even if he or she cannot quite put their finger on it. Stilted, wooden speech cannot be helped by a good plot.
Often, as writers, we are so close to the idea, so close to the content that is needed to be revealed, we often forget about the sound of it all.
There are two tricks that are very easy to use, and more helpful–in my opinion at least–than any stack of textbooks.
- If you cannot “hear” the voice of your character in your head, then “hear” the voice of someone you know speaking the words. Who? How about
- READ your work back. Out LOUD. Yep, once you’ve finished your character’s speech, read it out loud and see if it sounds natural to YOUR ears. Trust me, it helps! Even better, have a friend read it out loud to you. Listen to where they stumble or back up to reread your words. You may be surprised how much you can learn when you hear another voice reading your work out loud.
Writing top-notch dialogue isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be insanely hard, either.
Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, or… well, face it, there are thousands of voices out there that you can use. If your dialogue is failing, write it for a famous actor. In your mind let Kathleen Turner or Meryl Streep speak your lines. Having a voice with timbre and tone, with voice habits and the works “read for you”, can make all the difference in the world. More importantly, it gives your dialogue a certain verisimilitude, making it real for you, and then for your reader.