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Crafting Realistic Dialogue
by Bonnie Way

Dialogue is one of the hardest parts of fiction to write, because it needs to sound real while also performing its job within the story. One task given to dialogue is to reveal more about the personality of each character in the story, by showing how they talk and how they interact with other characters.

Studying examples of fictional dialogue that works can help you develop an ear for how dialogue reveals more about the characters.


Dialect

In the past, writers used phonetic representations of words to convey that a character was speaking with a dialect. However, this made the story very hard to read, because the reader had to go slowly, sounding out each word, and the effect of the dialect got lost.

A much better way to convey dialect is by word choice and order.

Passing by Samaria by Sharon Ewell Foster tells the story of a young black American woman just after World War II. Foster’s dialogue is what makes this novel happen; it is easy to hear the conversations of the black characters, who have a unique lilt that the white characters lack. Foster achieves this without using any phonetic devices.

In the first chapter of the novel, JC is on his way to war and tells his best friend Alena, “You visit my mamma... She’s gonna be lonely for me. She might try to act like she all right, but she gonna be lonely.”

Later he boasts, “This’ll be the war to end all wars. Once we able to prove ourselves, prove the coloured man, the Race, is willing to fight and die for our country, I know things gone change.”

Read those sentences out loud to get the full value of what Foster does with the dialogue. Then look at how the grammar creates the dialect (e.g.., “she all right” instead of “she’s all right,” “things gone change” instead of “things are going to change”).

It’s very easy to picture a confident young black man saying those words. Even if we didn’t know JC’s background, we’d be able to guess it from the way that he talks.

Banter

Everyday conversations contain a lot of useless information, chit chat, and banter that is often meaningless. In fiction, however, that same banter can convey information about our characters and their relationship.

In Robert Whitlow’s legal thriller Higher Hope, the banter between two law students shows the differences in their values and beliefs:

“’Tami prays before she eats,’ Julie said. ‘I told her if she stayed away from pork and shellfish, the blessing is automatic..’

“’Is the pastrami on your sandwich pork-free?’ I asked.

“’Go ahead and pray,’ Julie said.”

From the girl’s banter, we see that Julie is a rather modern, independent woman while Tami is a very conservative Christian. However, we also see that they like each other and enjoy working together, despite their differences. The banter also helps lighten up otherwise serious scenes.

Be wary of using banter for its own sake, however. Whitlow’s exchanges of banter are short and to the point, keeping the story moving forward. It feels like real dialogue, where two people exchange a few verbal spars in the middle of a conversation and then keep talking about whatever had started the conversation.

In Higher Hope, the banter shows how the two law students are able to think quickly on their feet and jab at each other.. Banter could also be used to show how one character is shy or introspective and doesn’t respond to the verbal jibes of another character.

On the more negative side, banter can become verbal abuse if it is very sarcastic or biting.

Attitude

Many writers fall into the trap of using adverb tags, such as “he said gently” or “she said lovingly.” That breaks the writer’s number one rule of “show don’t tell.” It’s much more powerful if the words used by the characters convey those emotions and show their attitudes towards each other.

Rather than saying that a character is belligerent or courteous or snobby, show this through the words that each character uses.

In Betty Jane Hegerat’s novel Running Toward Home, a foster mother and a birth mother are sitting in a car talking about their son. Tina, the birth mother, begins the conversation by asking, “’So, where do you think he is?’

“Wilma’s eyes narrowed. ‘Until we got your phone message, we thought he was with you. Where he’s supposed to be.’

“’Yeah, well he was sick. He shouldn’t have been out at all. I made him phone and tell you to pick him up.’ . . .

“Wilma shook her head. ‘There were no calls from Corey. Not while we were home, and not on the answering machine.’

“What a surprise. Tina raised her arms to lift the hair off the back of her neck. The car was stifling. ‘Well then I guess he lied, didn’t he? How long have you been here?’

“’Only a few minutes,’ Wilma said. ‘I thought this would be a good place to start. Close to the tiger. Corey told me he likes the tigers best.’

“’Yeah, we always have to hang out with the tigers for half the lousy visit.’”

It’s obvious from the dialogue that neither woman likes the other and each is vaguely accusing the other of not giving Corey proper attention. Adding tags like “Wilma said accusingly” or “Tina said rudely” would distract from the story. The reader already knows that simply from the way each character spoke. Again, read the dialogue aloud and see how the words sound.

Good dialogue can carry a story forward, while poor dialogue bogs it down. While reading fiction, take note of places where the dialogue catches your attention and analyze why it works. How did the author reveal more about the characters through what they said?

Because dialogue is also meant to represent the spoken word, read it aloud, whether it’s your own dialogue or someone else’s. Hearing it can help you grasp how it works or where there are inconsistencies. Then use what you’ve discovered to write great dialogue in your own fiction.


Bonnie Way reads and writes fiction from a small town in northern Alberta. She is the editor of FellowScript, a quarterly writer’s newsletter, and a contributing writer at Suite 101.com. When she’s not writing, she’s busy as a wife and mom. You can find her musings about life, writing, and motherhood at http://thekoalabearwriter.blogspot.com .




 



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