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Thread: Natural Dialogue

  1. #1
    Mid-Leap asmira's Avatar
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    Natural Dialogue

    My dialogue always sounds to me as if it is being delivered by robots. Do any of you have any tips on how to get my characters to loosen up and talk naturally?

    It seems like the easiest thing in the world when you think about it.. but it never *sounds* natural to me. Especially when you have as little time to develop the character as you do in a short piece.

  2. #2
    Writer Erin Kelly's Avatar
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    Listen to the way people talk. Read short stories and study how the writers managed their dialogue. Incorporate mannerisms into the dialogue to give your characters more depth. Read the scene aloud so you know how it sounds, then read the work of other writers aloud so you can gauge the difference.

    But mostly, read, read, read!

    :-)

    There are also several craft articles on dialogue that can be helpful.

    Best of luck.
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  3. #3
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Read your dialogue aloud, and dramatically, in the manner you envision the characters interacting.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

  4. #4
    permaflounced
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    And remember, people don't always stay on topic; they sometimes stray and go off on tangents...and once in a while, their conversation is peppered with stuff like, "um," and "aahh."

  5. #5
    The Boon abides Drey of Boon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Erin Kelly View Post
    Read the scene aloud so you know how it sounds.
    Definitely this.

    And use actions and even dialogue tags to control the flow of the conversation and give it a more natural rhythm.

  6. #6
    Caped Codder jaksen's Avatar
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    Read it. Stand up and read it. Dash back and forth if two characters, move to a third spot if there are three. My sister and I used to tape* TV shows, memorize the dialogue and then do this. You should have seen us do Star Trek: You be Spock, I'll be Kirk and Uhura. Oh, you're the green slave girl, too.

    No kidding and now I do that with my writing. If the dialogue sounds off, then it probably is.

    Also prob. best to do this when alone, but I still read dialogue aloud when my family's around. Got to the point that I don't care if they hear me or not. I think they mostly tune me out.

    *On a little reel to reel tape recorder, just the sound track obviously. Mike pointed at the TV.
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  7. #7
    Huh. kkbe's Avatar
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    Last month I answered a post about that. . .hang on. . .

    Okay, here it is, in part:
    Let who's speaking be reflected in action sometimes. Use dialogue tags to eliminate confusion of who is saying what, or slip in a name every now and again, sparingly. So it doesn't come across like, "What do you think, Joe?" "I think you're full of shit, Bob."

    People talk clipped sometimes so, for example, instead of saying, "Are you talking to me?" DeNiro's taxi driver said, "You talkin' to me?" They use contractions, so do that if appropriate to the character. Create unique speech patterns, little quirks, whatever, to help delineate your characters.

    If your dialogue is going to come across as real, you have to know your characters, really know them. That's paramount, I think. So, I envision the scene, see my characters--I know exactly what they're doing, feeling, and I write what they say. Then I read the scene aloud. Does it sound natural? Is it appropriate for the scene?

    EtA: Already mentioned. A really good idea, I think.

    Another really important consideration is, does the dialogue DO something, move the story along in some way? Sometimes you have to drop the boring little stuff people really say, remembering that you're . . . not transcribing. You always have to be cognizant of story.

    So I read aloud and often edit right after that. Or rewrite. Cut. Edit some more and read it aloud again, blah blah, until I'm satisfied. Sort of. I tend to return to key dialogue scenes after writing more, to double-check that everything still makes sense and fits together smoothly. An example from my NaNo WIP:

    “When did he do it, do you know?”

    “I think before Halloween. Maybe way before--no, not way ‘cause lots of leaves was on the ground. What’re we gonna do, Mike?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Should we tell Mom?

    “We ain’t got no proof, Albert. We gotta get proof or nobody’ll believe us and then he’ll know and that’ll be it.”
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  8. #8
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Also, don't succumb to the temptation to use dialogue to spoon-feed background information to your readers.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

  9. #9
    Mid-Leap asmira's Avatar
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    Smile

    Thank you all for your time!
    Reading it aloud, and understanding the characters definitely helps.

    I think one problem I'm having is that I really don't know one of the characters in this scene very well at all. I'm going to spend some time getting to know him and I am sure that will help.

    @jaksen: That is an absolutely adorable idea. I kinda love it.

    Again, thanks for your time.

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW Rufus Leeking's Avatar
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    Thanks to Jaksen for reminding me of the green alien too. I do live storytelling slams. In a recent final in Ann Arbor (where deep PC stories have extra ummmph) a woman beat me with the story of being a hospital minister. She was asked to counsel a young woman dying of extreme jaundice, it was so bad the woman was a shade of green. In the story the minister said she was creeped out, but then she realized that was only due to the patient's color, and then she concluded she was being prejudiced, and it was no different than being racist.

    She won, which was BS. And up until now, when I've told this story, i say, "Until they find a tribe of green people somewhere, it isn't prejudice to be afraid of green people." Now I can work in the Star Trek angle.
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  11. #11
    Miss Conceived Liralen's Avatar
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    Voice. Stay true to the character's voice.

    You can't be self-conscious when you're writing dialogue.

  12. #12
    resident curmudgeon
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    I believe really good dialogue is the one part of writing that can't be taught, and often can't be learned. To write natural sounding dialogue, you must hear dialogue as it really is. Few people can do this, and I'm not sure practice helps.

    But you have the one trait that's absolutely necessary, which is knowing what you write doesn't sound natural.

    Beyond this, try to avoid using characters of a type you've never met or listened to in real life. Writing good dialogue means writing dialogue you've heard often. If it's going to sound natural to the reader, it has to be second nature to you.

    Too many new writers think the people they know are all too ordinary to place in fiction, so they invent characters of a type they've never been around, and then wonder why the dialogue doesn't sound natural.

  13. #13
    Mid-Leap asmira's Avatar
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    Thank you both for your time. I don't think I'm falling into that exact trap, James, but I will definitely be on the lookout for it in the future.

  14. #14
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I believe really good dialogue is the one part of writing that can't be taught, and often can't be learned. To write natural sounding dialogue, you must hear dialogue as it really is. Few people can do this, and I'm not sure practice helps.
    I disagree with everything said here. But to do it, you have to listen, which is a skill different from hearing.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

  15. #15
    resident curmudgeon
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    I disagree with everything said here. But to do it, you have to listen, which is a skill different from hearing.

    caw
    It may be only my experience, but I find that very, very, very few people can listen and learn dialogue, anymore than they can listen and learn how to sing. A tin ear is a tin ear. Listening is one of those things that sounds good, but if it actually worked, we'd all be geniuses and masters of all we tried.

    My experience is that some people are just as tone deaf when it comes to dialogue as they are when it comes to singing.

    As the Bible says, they listen but they do not hear.

    "Learn by listening" also implies that good dialogue is simply writing down words exactly as people say them. This works on occasion, but most dialogue is not written as people really speak, and the difference is a lot more than simply removing the garbage.

    I'm certainly not alone in this belief. I've met very few pro writers who think dialogue can be learned unless you have the ear for it, and I've certainly seen little evidence that it can learned, at lest in the sense that a write who's really bad at writing dialogue will ever become really good at it.

    Other than writing characters the writer knows well, I simply see less improvement in dialogue than in any other part of writing. Those who can write good dialogue do, and those who can't will most likely never learn because they do not hear, and, I suppose, also never figure out why and how written dialogue is so different than the spoken dialogue we hear all the time in our daily lives.

    If nothing else, that never learn how to make dialogue apply properly to the story, never get the cadence of when, where, and what, even if they master the how. How matters, but the best line of dialogue ever written when it comes to how is still bad dialogue if the when, where, and what are wrong.

    Most who try writing can't even write themselves well, and if you don't know how to put your own words down on paper, how can you get anyone else's words right?

    I do think it helps to write characters you know, your friends, family, etc., but dialogue is simply tough to write well. It makes or breaks a story, and my experience tells me many simply can't learn to write good dialogue, anymore than they can learn to sing.

  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW
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    Anyone can learn anything, if they know how to learn it and are prepared to put in the time and effort to learn it. That dialogue can't be learnt just by listening may be true; it does not however mean it can't be learnt at all.

  17. #17
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    I can't disagree with James, at least in that writers of brilliant dialogue have a natural ear for it. An ear for dialogue (or language or music) can't be taught, but it can be developed and honed. And I think there are degrees of natural ability; it's not an on-or-off, black-or-white scenario. A writer takes what's been given by nature and works to improve it.

    Asmira, there are rules for good dialogue that have little to do with writing stuff that sounds like normal people talking. Dialogue is its own special universe; it may sound natural, but it is a highly artificial construct.

    Make your dialogue adversarial--full of conflict and friction, overt or subtle. Make it oblique, rather than a back-and-forth ping-pong match. Let characters say surprising things, rather than the obvious. Make it dark, make it shocking, make it amusing. Above all, don't let it boring.

  18. #18
    we are the words 'i love you' kuwisdelu's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    Read your dialogue aloud, and dramatically
    "Dramatically" or DRAMATICALLY!!!?
    (a blog.) ...last updated 15 June 2015

  19. #19
    Mid-Leap asmira's Avatar
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    Thank you, BethS. I will keep that in mind.. I think mine may well be in need of some serious cuts.

  20. #20
    Soldier, Storyteller Linda Adams's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by asmira View Post
    Do any of you have any tips on how to get my characters to loosen up and talk naturally?
    Just a different suggestion. Instead of looking at fixing the dialogue, look at the characterizations. It may be the dialogue problem is being caused by the character development.
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  21. #21
    Mid-Leap asmira's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Linda Adams View Post
    Just a different suggestion. Instead of looking at fixing the dialogue, look at the characterizations. It may be the dialogue problem is being caused by the character development.
    Upon reflection, I am afraid that you may be correct. I'm working on sitting down with the problem character and just getting to know him better.

  22. #22
    New writer since 07/2012. Cornelius Gault's Avatar
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    My problem right now is I don't have much actual dialog(ue). I am writing in epistolary format, so most of the story is my MC speaking first-person about what happened to him during the day (see Frankenstein and Dracula).

    Part of my story takes place in Victorian New York around 1800-1850, so I also have to make the writing style sound from the right era. Cornelius wouldn't say, "You said THAT to him? Really? That was cool beans".
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  23. #23
    Purple hair, not prose. VanessaNorth's Avatar
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    Read your work aloud. If you have significant worldbuilding, incorporate it into expressive language (think about how in battlestar galactica, they said "gods" instead of god, stuff like that). Get into the rhythm of it, the natural patois of dialogue is different from the rest of your prose, it should read differently, flow differently, fall all over itself like a real conversation with interruptions and everyone bringing their own agenda to the conversation.

    Never forget that your characters have agency. They want something out of every conversation and they're going to try to get it. Let that goal power their speech.

  24. #24
    resident curmudgeon
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    Quote Originally Posted by Buffysquirrel View Post
    Anyone can learn anything, if they know how to learn it and are prepared to put in the time and effort to learn it. That dialogue can't be learnt just by listening may be true; it does not however mean it can't be learnt at all.
    Really, anyone can learn anything? Then why don't we have more brilliant mathematicians, more great scientists, and far better singers?

    We are not all equal. Some have far better minds than others, some can learn this but not that. Some few can learn almost anything, most can't come close.

    Talent matters, and not everyone has talent. Intelligence matters, and we all have different levels of intelligence.

    Those who actually believe they can learn anything are either staggering geniuses, or they've never tested their limits, and we all have limits on what we can and can't learn.

    I've seen writer who put in decades, who write dozens of novels, who studied incessantly, but who were just as bad after all that writing, all those decades, and all that study, as they were the day they started.

    I've seen singers go through the same thing, and I know from personal experience that no amount of time and study will ever make me a theoretical mathematician, an artist, or a singer. I simply do not have the capability to do any of these things well.

  25. #25
    Mid-Leap asmira's Avatar
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    I think the catcher to what BuffySquirrel said was "if they know how to learn it and are prepared to put in the time and effort to learn it"

    Knowing *how* to go about learning a thing is not always obvious. And to be frank, most people I know are not always willing to put the time and effort in to learn everything that crosses their path.

    It's like what my mother always complained about, being a mathematics teacher. She hated that people let their children believe that math was hard, and that elementary school teachers taught it like it was magic. By the time they got to her, no one knew *how* to learn math, and it was perfectly acceptable in their minds to say that 'math is too hard' and then it was okay to fail at it.

    If over an entire lifetime of book writing a writer has not improved one iota, then I guarantee that you have a writer that does not know HOW to learn to write, or how to see what they need to improve.

    I think BuffySquirrel hit it right on the head, but you have to have both.

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