Copyright © 2009 Julie Elizabeth Leto
Recently, I was listening to the audio version of Stephen King’s ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT, read by the author himself. This is, in my opinion, a definitive work on writing popular fiction and if you haven’t read it—or better yet, listened to King read it—what are you waiting for? The book is short and filled to the brim with brilliance. This is the fourth (or fifth) time I’ve read it and I pick up a new nugget each time.
This time, I was listening to the section on dialogue when King declared, I’m paraphrasing here, that fiction writers need to remember that their main objective is to tell the truth. We write fiction, but if our fiction is not based on universal human truths, then we will not reach the mass audience that we are aiming for. One way that we tell this truth is through the way our characters talk.
He argued that if a character hits their thumb with a hammer, chances are, they’re going to curse. A real curse. Not an “Oh, Sugar!” but an, “Oh, Shit!” This is true—for the most part. There are a few characters—King mentions a maiden aunt—who might say “sugar” instead of “shit,” but in the majority of cases, regular people are going to curse and loudly, too.
And therein lies the truth: if you want to write believable dialogue, the manner of speech has to match up with the character you’ve created.
If you chose to write about a jaded New York City cop, you’re going to have to write some harsh language. I remember reading an except of some particularly bad dialogue on the Internet a while back that was purportedly spoken by two modern-day street gangs—they sounded more like Jets and Sharks than Crips and Bloods. I’ve also read some dialogue that hinged so much on stereotype, it was offensive.
You can’t write about how you think someone talks—you have to know.
The key to good dialogue, therefore, is creating characters about which you can write authentically. If you don’t have the skill or the ability to research (or the ear, which is a more natural ability to hear people speak and translate the word choices, cadence, rhythms and syntax to the page) then perhaps you’d be better served writing a different character.
If you are adverse to using colorful language in your work, then you have two choices. First, you could make that New York City cop erudite and stuffy. Maybe then, he won’t cuss when he finds out that suspect he’s pursued for the last five years has escaped once again. Or you can write his dialogue in a gruff manner, but leave out the words that you don’t feel comfortable with, replacing it with phrases like, “He cursed” or “He dropped the f-bomb, though in the squad room, no one flinched except the little old lady who’d come in to report her missing Pekinese.”
But don’t, please, replace his curses with mild oaths like, “Oh, farts! I can’t believe he got away!”
See what I’m saying?
The best way to get a handle on dialogue is to have a handle on your characters. Create characters you can write about with believability. Listen to people who are similar to the character you’ve created. And if you don’t know anyone like that character, go searching!
I recently wrote a character who was Australian. I am not Australian. I’ve never been to Australia. I don’t know anyone (personally) who is Aussie and I did not want my character to sound like a caricature—not everyone (if anyone) in Australia talks like Crocodile Dundee.
The first thing I did was establish that she’d lived in the United States for ten years. This allowed her to be familiar with American expressions and references. Then, I started trolling the Internet for blogs written by Australians. People tend to write their blogs in their natural voice. I also emailed a few writer buddies who lived in Australia (love the Internet) and asked them about expressions I read during my research, to find out if they were regional, slang, etc, overly young or spoken by people my age. I also watched films produced in Australia—not American films, but actual films made by Australians for Australian audiences. I love Netflix.
Yes, I did research. Quite a bit, actually. But I had to do this in order to hear my heroine. Once I could hear her voice, I could write about her believably.
I created a character I could handle and I did my research. Just a few weeks ago, a reader complimented me on the way I portrayed that character. She noted the dialogue. For her, I’d succeeded in creating a believable character. Yeah!
Dialogue drives a story. Readers tend to seek it out and focus on it. They might skim through description or narration, but they rarely skim dialogue. It’s set off my nifty punctuation and everything—it says, “Look, here! Read me!” Oftentimes, dialogue makes or breaks a book. As a writer, you’d be well served by studying dialogue and seeking to improve it—even if you think you’re already good at it. One way to do that is to listen to King’s book.