Crafting Authentic Dialogue
The other day my daughter orally lamented a previous conversation. “I always think of my best come-backs too late.” I know how she feels, although I’m probably on the other end of the spectrum—I often wish I hadn’t said X or Y once the conversation is done. At least in writing we can carefully craft our words, which should make it easier, right? Not necessarily. Writing effective, authentic, snappy dialogue is a skill that must be honed. And yet, when done well, it plunges the reader deep into the story and provides vivid characterization.
This last week two authors threw their “chatty-keyboards” into the Clash of the Titles‘ ring, competing in our “Snappy Dialogue” category. Although both excerpts were phenomenal, Sarah Sundin, author of A Memory Between Us, wowed readers with her printed banter.
Here’s a snippet of her COTT competing excerpt:
Jack made out Ruth’s shapely figure coming down Northgate Street. She couldn’t afford the new olive drab uniforms some of the nurses wore, but she sure looked smart in the dark blue jacket and medium blue skirt.
Jack stepped back around the corner. He unzipped his lightweight leather flight jacket, made sure his shirt collar was open, and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his olive drab trousers. Had to look casual.
He let Ruth pass, then fell in behind her. “‘One misty moisty morning.’”
Ruth looked over her shoulder and smiled.
“‘When cloudy was the weather, I chanced to meet an old man clothed all in leather. He began to compliment and I began to grin. How do you do? And how do you do? And how do you do again?’”
Amusement crinkled her eyes. “It’s afternoon.”
“Yeah, but it’s misty and moisty. Life in England has taught me what that means.”
“No misty moisty mornings in California?”
“In January, not August.” Jack proceeded down the flagstone sidewalk. “And look, you chanced to meet an old man clothed all in leather.”
Gotta love that phrase, “Misty, moisty morning,” an example of great dialogue and fun alliteration!
Read that excerpt again carefully. What do you notice?
The first thing I notice is the absence of dialogue tags like, “he said,” and “she said.” Replacing dialogue tags with action beats: “Jack proceeded down the flagstone sidewalk,” helps the reader forget their reading a story and flavors the interaction by adding visual-evoking details or emotion-revealing facial expressions and physiological responses.
However, like any tool, action beats should be used sparingly. A scene bogged down with nose scratches, eyebrow raises, shrugs, and frowns can be almost as distracting as tagging. And when the dialogue occurs between two characters, most tagging can be eliminated entirely:
“Did you pick up milk?” Momma crossed her arms and stared at the bag of candy clutched in Tim’s hand.
“How convenient. I suggest you march that forgetful brain of yours right back to that store and trade that junk you’re holding for a gallon of milk.”
I also noticed hints of personality–characterization–in Sarah’s excerpt. The phrase, “Misty, moisty morning,” made me think Jack is a bit playful and creative. Most often, you can tell who’s talking instantly by their word choices.
My husband’s a perfect example. Most often he sounds like a cross between a casino stickman (“Winner winner chicken dinner!”) and a 1980’s railroader (“Let’s load test it.”)
However, don’t camp out in the Urban Dictionary just yet. While the effective use of slang, euphemisms, contractions, and one-liners jazz up character-interaction, an over-abundance of creative-phrasing begins to sound forced.
So how do you find that balance between authenticity and cheesy?
Stalk your friends, neighbors, and co-workers with a hidden recording device. Listen for those unique phrases spoken by various people–real people. Notice sentence length and how it’s used. When they’re angry, do they drag their words out or keep them short and blunt? When trying to talk you into something, do they beat around the bush, piling compliment upon compliment? What about when you catch them in a lie? Then use what you’ve learned in your own writing. Compartmentalize people so you can begin to visualize a “character-type,” then strive to make the dialogue of each character you craft distinct.
Final step: Say it out loud. Act it out. Does it sound authentic?
Do you have any suggestions you’d like to show us? Go ahead and post an excerpt in our comments along with an explanation for why you wrote the scene as you did. You might even when a free career-coaching consultation in the process. This month I’m offering a free one-hour career-building phone consultation where I’ll share some tips on increasing your platform and building your writing credentials. To be entered in the drawing, leave a comment or fb share or tweet this post. (If you fb share or tweet this article, please shoot me an email letting me know.)