In theory, writing dialogue should be one of the easiest things in the world. It should be like breathing, blinking, and breaking wind – real-world talents that every one of us shares (although some of us are far better at the latter than others). After all, we mostly all talk a great deal, and we mostly all hear others talking (sometimes far more than we might want to), in our day to day lives, at work, and on TV, so we can’t really claim that it’s something of a major challenge to simply write those words down. Can we?
Well, as it happens, yes we can.
How many times have you read a novel and later said of it something like, ‘What a great story/concept/visualisation/atmosphere/twist-in-the-tail – but the dialogue just stank to high heaven...’? I know I have, although to be honest ‘high heaven’ may not have been the exact expression I used. In fact, there have been occasions when I’ve put a book aside, never to be touched again, simply because the dialogue was so shockingly poor that every turn of phrase was like dragging my nails down a blackboard or having blocks of polystyrene being rubbed together under my nose.
The awful truth is that some writers simply don’t have an ear for dialogue, and their characters all end up ‘sounding’ to a reader’s mental ear like poor actors plodding their way through the lacklustre script for a cheap film. How can you believe in a character, trust him or her, empathise with their pain, share their sense of peril, or joy, or loss, if you wince every time they open their mouth? In this sense, bad dialogue is just like any other anomaly in a work of fiction – it pulls the rug from under your readers’ feet and the wool from over their eyes, and it dumps them out of the story faster than you can say Jack Robinson. And that’s Game Over, Jack.
The generally received wisdom for writing dialogue is that it should be written the way real people speak, but that idea doesn’t really work 100%, otherwise every book would be filled with page after page where small, isolated islands of information and lucidity would be surrounded by a vast ocean of ums and errs, sighs, and hmmms, wait-a-minutes, throat-clearing grunts and coughs, false starts, backtrackings, and endless habitual repetitions...you know, like, yeah, like, you know? Boring and dull. But at the other end of the scale, sectioning off a few sentences of staid, functional narrative, enclosing it in speech marks and daring to call the result dialogue, is probably a lot worse.
The best course of action, I believe, is to follow one fairly simple rule, and that rule is to know your characters before you start channelling though them.
If you know your characters the way you should, you’ll begin to hear their voices in your head when they have something to say. You’ll know their backgrounds, their upbringing, and their accents, and how those accents affect the rhythm of their speech, and you’ll know their private, professional, and intimate vocabularies, their sense of timing and their life-references, their tastes in emphasis, and the terms in which they are likely to express their humour, anger, or despair – and, sometimes far more importantly, you’ll know all the things they wouldn’t say, either through personal choice or a plain lack of knowledge or experience.
As far as I’m concerned, if a writer sticks to that one rule, they can’t go far wrong with dialogue. They’ll never make a boy sound like a man or a woman sound like a girl, unless that’s the specific intention. They won’t have doctors talking like barflies or manual labourers quoting the philosophers, unless it’s a facet of character that has some special relevance to the story being told. Characters won’t stand around in bunches talking like a convention of pronunciation-impaired SatNavs. Characters won’t say ‘haemoglobin’ when they mean ‘blood’, or say, ‘Sir, I do not believe that you, in fact, understand the subject we are in the middle of discussing in the slightest!’, instead of, say, ‘Clearly, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Jack.’
In conclusion, dialogue should be simple to write. Just cut the crap, keep the meat and the colour, and say what your characters really mean.