How to Write Authentic Dialogue

Published author Bryan Fagan shares his take on tips for creative writing. This is his second article: How to Write Authentic Dialogue.

Understanding Your Character’s Voice

Writing dialogue is easy. All you have to do is throw words against the wall and see which ones will stick. But if your goal is to create something special, to write a novel that a person will want to read over and over, it begins with understanding your character’s voice.

But what is a character’s voice, and how do you find it?

When a novel is written, the author has a choice of creating dialogue from real life experiences or something made up. I like to combine the two. Most of the time it has to be something that makes me laugh or think. Regardless of what the writer chooses, the understanding is as important as the story itself.

I like to think of their voices as their personality. A good writer will take the time to see and feel the character’s voice, but in order to do all of that they must understand who these people are.

If a character is a chatterbox, their dialogue will cover an entire page but if they’re shy no amount of bribery will cover a complete sentence. If a writer’s goal is to understand their character’s voice, a couple of questions must be answered.

Is their dialogue important to the story, and if it’s not, what is? 

Writing dialogue is challenging but it can be fun. There are tricks to learning this type of creativity, and one of them is observing.

Take-away: You have to truly understand your character in order to give them an authentic voice.

Observing Real-Life Conversations

When I was a little kid, I created a fantasy world where I was the only one who existed. Unfortunately my best friend tossed a monkey wrench into my fantasy universe, leaving me in despair. 

He hid a tape recorder under the dinner table and recorded his parent’s conversations. I was forced to listen to another world without me and in that moment my amazing fantasy and all things me evaporated. But there was a silver lining to all this – My friend’s tape recorder became my first lesson in observing real life conversations.

Most of us are taught it is rude to listen in on others but if that’s true then writers are about as rude as it gets. Side Note: It’s not true. We’re really cool and fun to hang with.

Writers live in a world of make believe but in order to make that happen they must live in the real world first. That’s where observing real-life conversations comes into play. But where do you find them without looking obvious? No, hiding under a dinner table is not the answer.

You’ll find writers listening in to others in the grocery store, at work surrounded by co-workers or at the playground listening to their kids play.

The real world is our textbook. A giant how-to on all things conversation. By observing, a writer understands speech patterns, hesitations and using the wrong words at the wrong time and place.

Yes, I said wrong words. But isn’t wrong a bad thing? Well…not really.

Take-away: Listen to the people around you to get a feel for natural conversation.

Capturing Natural Speech Patterns

Once a writer understands that listening to others’ private conversations will not land them in a five year prison sentence they learn to relax, and once they relax they settle in and listen a little closer. They capture patterns and habits and mistakes. Yes, that wrong word thingy I was talking about.

I once had an English teacher demand that we follow the laws of speech while in her class. Verbs and nouns and those pesky adjectives lined up just so. It was the hardest class I ever had and one I would never try again. I like talking without a whole lot of rules. 

I learned how natural it is to use the wrong word or say it differently than others. It’s enough to drive an English teacher insane but worth it in a world of creativity.

Why does a writer make it a rule to capture natural speech patterns? Why is that so important, not only for the writer but the reader too?

For starters, when a person is reading a novel they become lost in a fantasy, but this can only happen when the speech patterns are real. But realism will only exist from understanding, observing and finally, capturing.

We live in an imperfect world where people laugh at funny things or say goofy stuff and when that happens in written words, the magic is real.

Take-away: Write dialogue how people really talk, instead of with perfect English.

Conveying Non-Verbal Cues

I have three cats that do not speak a word of English but still manage to talk to me everyday.

First, there’s Flash: When he wants outside he grabs the handle on the door and tries to pull and when he’s hungry he goes out of his way to trip me over.

Second is Cozmo: Every Sunday I share a blueberry muffin with him. It has become our Sunday tradition. It is the only day of the week where he sits by my desk, his eyes wide in anticipation and his tail moving eagerly back and forth.

And last but not least, Sherlock: He loves the outdoors. He is the mini king of our backyard. Last week his ear was torn due to a fight. In order to heal he was forced to stay indoors. To express his outrage he took liberty by peeing on our favorite chair and proudly standing by for all to see.

So what just happened? How were these little pesky non-humans able to voice their opinions so loud and clear and get away with it?

In storytelling, a good book is full of stuff like this. As a reader, I find it better than dialogue. 

In my opinion Stephen King is the best at this. He has the ability to fill his characters full of tension, fear and love without saying a word. But none of this is possible if a writer doesn’t know their characters. A full understanding of who these people are makes non-verbal cues the foundation of a story. 

Take-away: Your characters’ actions are as important as their words in capturing their “voice”.

Using Dialogue in “Show, Don’t Tell”

I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t think a lot about the craft. I do it and that’s it. Kind of like my grandmother and her world famous pork chop gravy. 

Grandma never gave a lot of thought to the grease or flour or whatever else she added. She tossed it together, added her stuff and in the end it was a major yum. 

I’m not world famous like grandma’s pork chop gravy but I did inherit the habit of tossing things together without much thought. When Isabella gave me the assignment of “using dialogue in show, don’t tell”, I had to stop and think about it. And, I have to admit, I called up my old trusty friend Google and asked what the hell she was talking about?

BTW: Google reminded me to show her a little more respect. Point taken. Sorry.

For research, I re-read some pages of my books. By doing so I discovered things I didn’t realize I was doing. I was forcing my characters to open up and show their true personality. I was tossing them in tense situations and forcing the shy ones to shout to the stars and back.

I demanded their dialogue to show bravery and express failure in defeat. I stripped away their verbal clothing so the world could see their naked words.

So many things can happen in dialogue but none of it matters if the character doesn’t show the reader who they are. Much like real life, their words pull back the curtain revealing their true nature and if done right, their words can take the story to a higher level.  

Take-away: Removing excess description from conversations forces your character’s personality out through their words.

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