Writing dialogue is important. Unless you’re doing a novel on a mute Russian burlesque group, in which case, all the luck to you. For the rest of us, even if you have the best worldbuilding ideas or the hookiest of book hooks, unnatural dialogue will be enough to make someone put your book down.
Dialogue must do three things:
- Sound like a real person
- Convey information quickly and naturally
- Tell us something about your character (ie dialogue has to sound different for each character)
That’s a lot to ask of every line that comes out of your characters’ mouths, but lucky for you, I have a secret weapon.
No, not a chainsaw slingshot (I wish).
My secret dialogue weapon? Fanfiction.
Write fanfiction, preferably of TV shows, but books work, too. Every book and TV show out there already has a cast of characters with their own personalities, backgrounds and quirks. By watching closely, and then trying to emulate those patterns, you can learn a lot about what makes people’s speech sound different from each other. Now, grab a notepad and the remote control and get to work (you so love me right now, don’t you?)
As each character speaks, try to analyze HOW they sound different. Walter White from Breaking Bad doesn’t sound a bit like Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, but why not? Here are some potential things to watch for:
- Unique words that one character uses
- Regional inflections or wording. Like y’all (apostrophe between the y and a, not the a and l’s, my southern belle CP informs me)
- Sentence length (do they speak in long or short sentences)
- Speed of speech
- Patterns. Do they trail off a lot? Do they interrupt? Are they interrupted by others?
- What about a character’s speech tells you their age? Is it their formality? Word choice? Pop culture references?
Now take your list of character-distinctive-dialogue qualities and TRY THIS AT HOME! Because believe me, all the pattern-noticing in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t put what you’ve learned into practice (just ask Dr. Frankenstein).
Another thing you can learn from writing fanfiction of a TV show is how to convey information in dialogue. You don’t just want your characters running around, thinking bulleted lists of things you need your reader to know.
- Emily is bisexual
- The coven of beaver-toothed witches lives two houses down
- My mother ruined my self esteem by criticizing my shoe choices.
Instead you want them to get what they need to know by watching your characters go about their normal business. This makes it seem natural and doesn’t remind the watcher/reader that HEY THIS ISN’T REAL I AM TELLING YOU A STORY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?
Some shows are better at information transfer than others. The Vampire Diaries, as much as I love them, are a great example of DON’T DO THIS verbal info-dumps. Info-avalanches. Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be good examples of subtle info transfer (sometimes too subtle), and shows like Better Call Saul are masters of using a prop or a conversation to show you what you need to know. Saul doesn’t say, “Well, parking lot attendant man, my law practice isn’t very successful.” Instead, you see an argument between him and the parking lot attendant over a few cents extra in un-validated parking time. A pointedly long argument. Saul doesn’t tell you he’s attracted to his friend, Kim. He just invites her over and then paints her toenails. In a self-deprecating, funny, totally manly way, of course.
Now that you’ve tried all this at home, test yourself (don’t worry, there will be cookies at the end). Call a friend who is also a fan of the book/TV show you wrote fanfiction for. Read them a couple lines of your dialogue out of context. Do you get a long pause, like, “Who would ever say that, Michelle? Seriously? I mean, when was the last time you used the word ‘pernicious’ when ordering Chinese takeout?”
Did you pass the “natural” test? Good.
Now can your friend name the character who is speaking without you having to tell them who it was? EVEN BETTER!
Congratulations, you can now graduate to trying your newfound fanfictiony brilliance in your original fiction, using your new tool box to make all your characters sound distinct, unique and (obviously) witty as hell.
And because I promised: