Writing Dialogue Isn’t an Exact Science

My guest blogger today is John Evans, author of The Fallen. Evans says:

From the first moment we enter the public education system, we are berated for a number of things. Whether it’s the hard slap of the ruler across our desk, followed by a stern, “Pay attention!” or the ever familiar punishment of writing, “I will not throw spit wads at the teacher during class” on the blackboard, our student lives are constantly inundated with rules of conduct. This is no different when writing in the English language. We are taught from a young age that there is a right way, and there is a wrong way to write. This, above every rule set forth by the education system, is the greatest pitfall a writer can face. 

By the rules and standards of the so-called “experts” of the English world, grammar must be perfect for a piece to effectively convey a thought or idea. At best, this may be true in expository writing, but on the whole “perfect” grammar is the final nail in the coffin of would be authors. The reason? Dialogue. 

Dialogue composition is a particularly difficult craft to master because unlike traditional writing, there are no concrete guidelines on how to go about teaching one’s characters to speak. The aspiring writer should know that dialogue is surrounded by quotation marks, followed by, so-in-so said. Simple enough, but what is typically overlooked is that humans don’t all speak in one set way. For example, Joe may have a Southern accent that needs the use of “yall”, yet the writer may instinctively write, “You all” because the mechanics of grammar demand it. Unfortunately, the act of doing so causes poor Joe to lose that quality that makes him a proud Southerner, and relegates him to a generic manner of speech. This in turn takes away from the overall quality of the story, and may even discourage the reader from going any further if Joe speaks in exactly the same fashion as somebody who is supposed to be from a completely different part of the world.  

My first novel, The Fallen, serves as living testament to my own struggles with the demons wrought forth by perfect grammar. I, like many aspiring writers who have come before me, fell into the trap of perfect grammar. This was especially apparent in the character of Aaron Yardovich. As his last name implies, he is supposed to be a Russian. Yet, in the first draft of the manuscript, he came off speaking like an automaton. There was no life in the character’s speech, and thus no life in the character. He was bland, boring, and otherwise insignificant. 

Which begs to question, how does one escape this dire pitfall when composing dialogue?  In a word, research. Most great authors will tell you to, “Write what you know.” This is horrible advice, unless one is willing to expand what he or she knows. To refine Aaron’s dialect, I had to enter the mindset of a Russian. To do this, I simply listened to my Russian physics lab instructor during my first year of college. In no time I turned the doldrums of Aaron’s computerized voice, to that of a stern talking Russian remnant of a Second Cold War.  

Of course this practice applies to writing in regional dialects as well. If one is to write in a character that is from Maine , then that character must be in possession of a Maine accent. This means that words like “compartment” could be written as “compautment”, as this is the nature of the Maine dialect. Moreover, it is necessary to take certain idiosyncrasies take into account.  For instance, what many of us call “dinner” is actually “supper” in certain parts of a country. Taking such minute details into account help to contribute to the overall believability of the character; however, this is not to say that one must butcher the English language to get the point across that a character is from a certain part of the world. There are other ways to emphasize this, and methods vary from writer to writer. The important thing is to make the reader believe that the character in question is indeed from a specific part of the world. 

Finally, the nature of sex in dialogue. Too often, a man’s way of speaking shows little difference from a woman’s in writing, and vice versa. A female character must possess a feminine quality about her speech for us to acknowledge she is a woman, just as a man must possess masculine qualities, but many writers fall short of this. A writer is either a man or a woman, and as such either writes as a man or a woman. 

The bottom line here is that dialogue isn’t an exact science. It is the art of giving one’s writing a soul, and thus giving it meaning. Mastering this truly challenging art form takes hard work, and years of perfection. But when it is mastered, it will serve the writer well, and take his or her craft to a level far greater than he or she ever thought possible.

5 Responses to “Writing Dialogue Isn’t an Exact Science”

  1. Pat Bertram Says:

    John, good article, and you make some excellent points, but it won’t come as any surprise to you that I disagree with you about spelling dialect phonetically. Accents are most easily disposed of by saying “he spoke with a Boston accent.” If the story takes place in Boston, readers are smart enough to know that the characters are speaking Bostonese so you don’t even need that. They don’t want to or need to wade through phonetically spelled words to get to the good stuff.

  2. Jason Says:

    Great observations and advice on dialogue. I do agree with Pat on the difficulty of reading phonetics if they are too far off from “standard” spelling of things. However, words like “gonna” or “whatever” can be used well in dialogue to make it a little more believable.

    I find the automatic spellchecker horribly annoying when attempting to write normal sounding dialogue. We’ve been trained to freak out every time a red squiggly line pops up, and this is a big impediment sometimes. So, I guess we either add misspelled words to our custom dictionaries or we turn off the spellcheck. Both could have equally “improper” outcomes!

  3. joylene Says:

    John, great article. And you’re so right. As writers, we need to pay attention. Listen. And then listen even closer. It’s amazing how much better my own writing became when I started really listening.

  4. John Says:

    Hey! John Evans here, Myspace’s Favorite Future NYT Bestseller. Just wanted to extend a “thank you” to my wonderful host, Pat Bertram, as well as thank the lot of you for adding your input. It is so important that writers listen to their fellow readers and writers to become better. The art of authorship is such a progressive career, and progressive careers demand progress. We as writers must allow our styles to move and change with the times that we live in, without forgetting the most fundamental components of a good story.

    And with that, don’t forget to pick yourself up a copy of my book, “The Fallen”, available through Barnes&Noble!


  5. jwakeham Says:

    I’m not personally a fan of phonetic transcription of dialogue, as I think it can become very distracting. The priority for me is the rhythm of the speech, which reveals a lot about region, class and character: someone from Georgia, for example, may use the same vocabulary as someone from Brooklyn, but the rhythm will be very different. For great thinking on character and dialogue, I once posted Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers:


    thanks for a great post best wishes JW

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