I mentioned in an earlier NaNo post that while descriptions of scenes, characters, and actions is not my strong suit, dialogue is. I can write dialogue like nobody’s business. I may forget to have that young woman push that stray lock of black hair behind her ear when she says something, but I tell you what, I can make her talk in a way that reveals all of the emotions behind her words. I can bring that conversation to life and usually capture all the nuances. It’s just something I’m good at.
People have sometimes asked me how I do it, and unfortunately, my usual answer is, “I don’t know.” Which is not remotely helpful, but it’s true. This is one area where I’m not sure I can give a lot of advice.
Yet there are a couple of things that I have gleaned over the years that might be useful. I’ll start with the most useful (and probably somewhat surprising) one first, because it comes from an author who not only published several novels but who also taught English at university.
DON’T BE TOO AUTHENTIC
I’m sure you did a double-take when you saw that heading, because it probably has to be the weirdest piece of advice you’ve ever heard, especially since people usually try so hard to make their plots seem plausible and make their characters valid and realistic. But this really struck me when I read it. I got this from a book called The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by an author named Oakley Hall. I gather that he wrote several westerns and mysteries, so he had some authority in the novel writing department. I really enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it, but what he said about dialogue struck me more than almost anything else.
Have you ever read a book where someone is writing a story, say, about knights in armour and ye olde kynges and qweyns? And everybody’s speech is full of “forsooths” and “prithees” and that sort of authentic talk? Or how about some kind, seafarin’ fisherperson who speaks a dialect of English that you can barely understand, yet the writer tries to repeat his quaint dialogue faithfully, word by word, with every line of speech full of apostrophes and dropped consonants and half-words until it looks like someone dropped a bunch of broken branches along the line?
I know that some people actually enjoy climbing over and around those piles of cracked branches. I even like some of it myself, when I’m in a certain mood. But Oakley Hall made a good point when he mentioned that it’s a lot of work to read, decipher, and interpret difficult and unfamiliar speech, no matter how authentic and true to a period or location it is. It might be amusing to speak of “ye olde kynges and qweyns” for a line or two, but imagine trying to plow through that for paragraphs and paragraphs and pages and pages. For some readers, there really can be too much of a good thing, especially if it requires them to work really hard just to get through your novel.
Two questions result from this issue. The first is: do you really write a novel so a reader has to work to read it? With some philosophical or modernist novels, that may be exactly why the writers write them, and if that’s the case with your story, that’s cool. You are writing for a very particular audience, and as long as that audience is content to read writing of that nature, you are doing exactly what you should be doing. But that’s not necessarily the audience that most NaNo writers (or even most writers) are aiming for. Most writers are going for a more general audience, and the story itself is somewhat more important than the clever crafting of the narrative itself.
So the second question becomes this: do you really want to write a novel that’s so “authentic” that your reader may simply decide not to do all that work and decides instead to put the story down and search for one that he or she finds more readable? It all comes down to why you’re writing the story you’re writing. If there’s any danger that your reader might find all this “authentic dialogue” just too damn authentic to deal with, you may unfortunately need to give up on all that authenticity.
Just a sprinkling
So what does that mean, then? You give up on trying to make your characters sound like they really belong in the era you’re writing in, and instead, you make them talk exactly like we do?
Yes and, actually, no. What Mr. Hall suggests is that you do use a bit of authentic language, at least at first. Don’t use too much, but sprinkle just enough words and idioms from that era into your dialogue that you create the atmosphere of the era you’re writing in. That will establish that atmosphere in your readers’ minds, and everything they read after that will be read with that atmosphere as a backdrop. Your readers themselves will supply the “authenticity.” But they’ll keep reading too.
Rather than saying, “I prithee, fair lady, attend to my speech,” you might say, “I pray thee, fair lady, to listen to what I have to say.” That sort of thing. And as you continue writing the dialogue, throw in a few “authentic” words or phrasings along the way, just a very light sprinkling here and there, rather than pouring out a thick, unreadable soup of them. You will maintain the exact atmosphere you’re looking for, but you will also keep your readers with you and save them from having to wrestle and struggle with your text.
And of course, while you’re doing that “sprinkling,” be sure not to use any modern-day words that are not part of standard English language. If your characters live in some kind of medieval era, I can guarantee that your authentic atmosphere will be totally shot if any of your characters ever says “duuude!”
WRITE HOW THEY ACTUALLY TALK
This is my own particular secret, and I realize that it may simply not be as straightforward to others as it feels to me. The reason I seem to be able to write genuine and real-sounding dialogue is that I don’t actually think of it as “dialogue” at all. I never “work on dialogue,” as some writers describe it. And I wonder if perhaps that’s not the key to things. It seems to work in my own stories, anyway.
What happens is that I live quite a bit in the minds of my characters. While I’m contemplating the story, even if I’ve only just thought of a scene for tomorrow and I’m mulling it over the evening before, I have usually lived through that scene several times by the time I actually write it. And if it’s spur of the moment, I still usually know at least my main characters well enough that I know perfectly well how they would react and what they would say in certain situations or if they were experiencing certain emotions.
So I just write down what they would say, and I write it down the way they would say it if they were real people. I’ve never really been able to understand when someone writes kind of stilted or unnatural dialogue. (And don’t worry; my apologies if that sounds like a criticism of anybody who has a hard time writing dialogue. This is just my own mind and how it works.) To me, it’s pretty glaringly obvious when someone is talking the way a real human being wouldn’t talk. What I do is just imagine how real people would be saying these things to each other in an actual situation, and I kind of transcribe the conversation. I never feel like I’ve actually “created” or even “written” a conversation; what it feels like is that I’ve sort of eavesdropped and recorded the conversation, and now I’m jotting down what I heard. Or else, being in my characters’ minds, I’m having the actual conversation myself. With myself as each character in turn.
If you know what your character needs to express, try to imagine how you would say it if you were her or him. If you were in a really emotional situation, would you stutter as you tried to get the important words out? What if you had to admit something that was excruciatingly embarrassing? You’d probably stumble over your words then, too, wouldn’t you? And I bet you’d say “um” a few times, while you tried to get up your nerve to keep going. (Except, of course—don’t throw in too many “ums.” They can grate on a reader’s nerves as much as a bunch of “prithees.” Again, there is such a thing as a bit too much “authenticity.” Throw in one “um” in a sentence and perhaps another one two paragraphs later, and after that, let the character’s body language continue conveying the embarrassment. The reader will supply all the “ums” where they’re needed, after that.)
I’m probably repeating this rather too often, but the basic trick, for me, anyway, is to write like people actually talk. If “the way people talk” is not something you’ve ever actually thought about, so you feel kind of lost and aren’t sure you can imagine it, just start listening to people for a while. Not in the sense of eavesdropping around corners or listening in on private conversations. Just hear the way people say things when they talk to you or around you. Where do they hesitate? How does it sound when they are rushing their words? How does their language and attitude change when they are speaking more intimately or more formally?
Here’s a week experiment. Of the two following choices, which statement do you think sounds most like something you would say, 1) “Please excuse me, but I have a most urgent message that Chris requested me to convey” or 2) “Hey, Chris really wanted me to tell you this”? You’d probably pick the second one, wouldn’t you? Doesn’t that sound a lot like something a real person would say? The first version sounds very stilted and stiff. It’s kind of textbook English, but few people would be likely to talk that way.
Meanwhile, if you (or a character) were in a somewhat more formal situation, you still probably wouldn’t pick the first choice. Instead, you’d probably say something more like, 3) “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Chris really hoped I could tell you this. He seemed to think it was important.” That’s a little less casual than the second choice, and it conveys some deference and a tone of formality, but it’s nowhere near as stiff as the first one.
How should you write dialogue? I could say “I don’t know,” and it wouldn’t help you much. Yet all I can really suggest is that you write things down the way a real person would say them, either to a casual friend or to a boss or a parent. And for gods’ sake, don’t make your reader swim through an ocean of “authentic language” that will get him or her concentrating on trying to decipher and grasp it. It’s your story you want the person to read, so do not let your dialogue get in the way of that.