Let Your Characters Speak for Themselves

Some writers are afraid of dialogue. I used to be one of them. I would write page after page of brilliant narrative — crisp details and settings so real you could smell the ponderosa pine sap on the thin mountain air — without a single line of dialogue.

I was terrified to let my characters speak. Because I knew the spoken word was a whole different beast to tame. It didn’t play by the same rules as straight narrative and it was hard to get a feel for it from the authors I was reading. Dialogue was the weakest part of my game, so I tried to minimize its role in my prose.

I think a lot of writers fall into this same trap. Dialogue is scary. It feels clunky and fake when it’s written out; it’s difficult to figure out what’s missing. What is the spark that makes it real?

It takes time to train your ear to hear speech correctly. A lot of it comes from talking to and listening to people. People from all over the world. Notice where they place emphasis; which words they use over and over; the cadence of their sentences.

Quickly, you’ll notice that people do not speak properly. Life isn’t an English essay. People don’t use complete sentences. They sprinkle their conversations with jargon, quotes, references, inside jokes. They conjugate verbs incorrectly and end sentences with prepositions.

The second thing you should do is immerse yourself in theatre. Watch some plays. Then read some plays. Then write some plays. Plays are almost entirely dialogue. There is some stage direction, but the spoken parts carry the plot, develop the characters and engage the audience. If you want to see how language can make a piece of writing sparkle, study the plays of Neil Simon, Harvey Fierstein, Lisa Loomer, Arthur Miller and George Bernard Shaw. Notice how the characters play off each other; notice how hidden agendas and secret desires are manifested in the dialogue.

With a careful ear and a lot of practice, the dialogue in your stories can go from the dullest facet of your piece to the most polished.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and occoccasional playwright living in Flagstaff, AZ. You can find more of his signature wit, wisdom and words, words, words on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.

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