Writing dialogue that speaks

Many writers curse the time that dialogue threatens to appear in a novel or short story. They fear the spoken word, because it feels false to them when they’re writing speech for characters. There is a very simple reason for this and one which I learned, only through experience.

I have written since my teens and all of my early work was bad. Awful might be more honest a description. The prose was weak and the dialogue pure drivel. It wasn’t that I lacked imagination or reading experience. I had a fund of creative ideas and read everything I could get hold of. My problem was that I lacked two things, maturity and life experience.

The years went by and I continued to write and my output improved. My stories were more interesting, because I had something to say, something to write about. I remember taking a creative writing course and each assignment came back the same. The tutor telling me that my dialogue was unrealistic. I was confused by this and could not understand why I had this problem. That is until in the early 1990’s I became an actor. I had been a musician and after that I had drifted into stand up comedy. I made the move from comedy to serious drama and began working in the theatre.

Having appeared in a number of plays, I decided to write something myself, with a view to performance. I found that as a writer I had the skills to create the story, but as an actor I could write the dialogue. I understood about the rhythms of speech, about tone and inflection and breathing. Each time I wrote for the voice, I would read out the line. The play ended up as a full length costume drama and premiered in Manchester in 1996. Since that time, writing dialogue has been very easy for me. I would like to share some tips, which hopefully might prove useful for anyone struggling, as I was with the written spoken word.

When writing dialogue, write it at the same speed as conversation occurs. That is quite fast and with little careful consideration. When people talk, it is a natural process and it has a flow. Unless a person has a very careful, slow and deliberate style of speech, they will talk in rapport with their emotional frame of mind. An angry person tends to deliver dialogue very quickly and often in a precise manner, in order to emphasise their own viewpoint. A person, who is upset, will more often than not speak slowly, with little gaps.

Always read aloud every piece of dialogue you write. If it’s a conversation, try to act a little and get the speed, fluency and emotional intent of both parties. If you do this, you will know if what you’ve written is true or not. As a writer I can only write my own truth. Your truth is a part of your own magic. I can offer advice from an actor’s viewpoint, because this offers a different slant.

Another very handy thing about reading your work out loud is that you catch typos and grammatical errors very quickly. Even if it is only to say, something is wrong. Because once you are aware that there is a problem, you are in a better position to find the answer. This doesn’t have to be hard or boring, it can be fun. Give yourself permission to enjoy hearing the words, words which you yourself have created.

An interesting little extra, which should appeal to most writers, is that the more you read out loud, the better and more natural it becomes. This is something that can come in very handy if you are asked to attend a function and read a passage from your book.

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