In 2012 I wrote about what makes good dialog. It’s such a critical part of a story that I thought I’d update it.
Good dialog sounds “real.” By that I mean, it sounds like what your character would say and not words you’ve put in their mouth – that may not quite fit. How do you know when dialog sounds real? Read it aloud. Read it to a critique partner or writing buddy. And don’t forget to “LISTEN” to hear what is being said, not what you meant to say.
I took a Playwriting class several years ago and one of our first assignments was on writing dialog. Face it, theater is mostly spoken and there are no narratives to explain the character or situation. What happens is spoken and physically dramatized. Back to the lesson: our professor said for each of us to go to a public place and eavesdrop. Write the dialog we hear, verbatim. (How cool is getting a grade for eavesdropping? Mother would be appalled.)
The coffee shop listening session was very enlightening. Two high school aged ladies were talking about a recent Friday night frightening date night and looking at fashion magazines. They appeared to be very good friends and spoke in incomplete sentences. One or the other often responded before the speaker finished, assuming they knew exactly what was going to come out of their friends mouth. What I heard were fragmented sentences, as well as thought hopping.
SO, I used what I heard in a scene where two teen siblings were arguing and bating one another. You can really speed up the story by clipping sentences off, and interrupting is a fabulous way to show emotion.
The key is “listening” wherever you go. How do mom’s talk to their toddlers? How do couples in love speak and act? How do old married couples converse? It’s amazing what you will observe. USE IT! You are experiencing real day-to-day dialog. Recreate it in your story.
Have you noticed that most people don’t speak grammatically. They often speak in a kind of short hand, punctuating it with body language or a physical act. Here’s an example, teenage Darrin is slouched on the couch with ear buds in his ears, an X-box controller in his hands, eyes glued to the television, feet on the coffee table that is littered with an array of food and drink remains. Mom’s mad. Her hands are on her hips, the dish washing sponge is in her hand and she yells, “Darrin Michael Smith…” splatting his head with the flying sponge. He drops his feet to the floor along side the controller, yanks off one ear bud and says, “WHAT!” Mom grits her teeth and says,”Clean up this mess.”
Do you see what I mean? Clipped sentences. Body language. Incomplete thoughts. You will seldom hear mom say, “Darrin, get your feet off of the table, put down the remote, pull out your ear buds, and clean up the mess.” He only hears “Darrin” and “mess” anyway, everything in the middle is noise.
Think about it. Try eavesdropping. Try writing a short scene like this and read it aloud. Does it sound realistic? It’s worth a try. Enjoy the writing journey, my friends.