I'm told I write great dialogue, or at least good dialogue, but who knows? It's all subjective and a matter of opinion. However, I do like to write dialogue and my first draft is almost entirely just...dialogue. Probably proves nothing at all but I thought I'd mention it as a sort of credential.
Anyway, I've been thinking about this dialogue thing because there's nothing that can't be improved upon. If you're currently having problems with your dialogue (no one thinks they are having problems with their dialogue but an honest critique partner might let you know) the fastest way to find out is to read it aloud. Or, better yet, get a friend to read it aloud while you listen. If it sounds stilted, it's because it is.
Some of you may know that I write historical romantic mysteries--sort of. One of the biggest myths about the Regency period is that no one used contractions. Not! Sure, when they were giving a formal speech or when in a particularly hoity-toity situation this might be true, but on a day-to-day basis...naw. People use contractions when they speak. They also leave out words, speak in half-sentences, and otherwise butcher the language.
However, you do have to make what your characters say at least seem to make sense so you can't go completely crazy. So, here is my advice on the subject of dialogue.
Give your hero and heroine a break and let them use a few contractions so their speech sounds less stilted. Those are the two characters you really want your readers to bond with and no modern reader is going to bond with a character who sounds like she's talking with her nose in the air. If you have older characters who are very proper, let them take the heat and enuciate everything perfectly and speak very properly with no contractions. I'd also allow the normal citizens to speak with contractions--you know, the hawkers in the street and the poor little flower girl selling voilets on the corner.
If you actually look at documents from the period, not only do they use contractions, but they use so many abbreviations that I actually have a hard time figuring out what they're trying to say (and why do they HATE the letter 'e'? It's the letter most commonly left out...).
The Duchess of Devenshire wrote to a friend in 1788...
I don't know in my Life that I Pass'd so many Miserable Hours, S. had so completely involved himself with Ly D. in that a suit was actually commenced against them in the Doctors Commons...however, thank God! The business is hush'd up...
I see "don't" used a lot in letters and reported conversation, so that's at least one contraction you are completely safe in using for Regency-set stories.
The point here is that you want your hero and heroine, at least, to sound human and like someone the reader could care about. No one likes a stuffed shirt. 'Nuff said. (Oh, and if you want to really sound historical, abbreviate everyone's name to just an initial, capitolize most of your nouns, and replace all your 'e' characters with a apostrophe ( ' ). Yeah. Right.
This "don't use contractions" rule probably came about by readers of Jane Austen who was very sparing of contractions (she mostly didn't use them) but I think it's important to realize her novels were somewhat formal affairs where everyone pretty much spoke correctly. But even this high authority had her moments...
From PERSUASION by Jane Austen
"Yes, I have. Presently. But here comes a friend, Captain Brigden; I shall only say, 'How d'ye do,' as we pass, however. I shall not stop. 'How d'ye do.'
Be aware that all writers are writing for their audience and their times. In Austen's time, readers preferred main characters who spoke beautifully and it is mostly the secondary, 'lower class' characters who may be portrayed as speaking in a more informal fashion (although this is not 100% true even in Austen).
If you are writing now, be aware that while 'lower class' characters may still speak more informally, most of our readers are not going to bond with characters who speak like they have a poker stuck up their rear end, hence my suggestion to let the hero and heroine use a few contractions to make them easier to like.
I've said that about a dozen ways now, so I'll move on to more modern time frames.
If you want to write good dialogue, you're going to have to be a good listener.
When I was in High School, I had a teacher who thought he was hot stuff and decided to teach us "kids" that we were not good listeners. So, for one of his lectures, he talked about a technique for listening which he called reflective listening. It's a real technique and I urge you to try it. This dumb-ass teacher just made the assumption we would not know how to do this, but anyone who has parents knows just how far they can push them, and they know because they're using reflective listening. Teenagers know perfectly well that when dad says, "That's enough!" in a certain tone of voice, he means, you had better shut up and run like hell because the world as you know it is about to explode into a million jagged fragments and if you're here when that happens it is not going to be a good experience for you.
Of course the fact that both my parents got their PhD's in Child Development/Psychology also means that I may be a little more familiar with this technique than your average skate-boarding/head-phone-wearing/pink-haired psycho. Anyway, this technique involves listening. You rarely say anything and when you do, it's basically an attempt to restate or clarify what the speaker has said to make sure you really understand them. It responds to the person rather than to the impersonal or abstract. You are not asking questions or telling what the listener feels or wants-you're listening and reflecting back what they are saying.
So, how will this help you? It will make you listen to what people are saying and how they are saying it. Then, when you go to write dialogue, you are going to write it the way you remember people actually speaking.
Like I said, unless they are giving a speech or are in some formal situation, people speak very off-handedly. They rarely use a complete sentence. Depending upon the character, they may not even speak grammatically. I would caution you, however, not to go insane and start using a lot of bizarre spelling to indicate dialects or accents, because that is a dialogue killer. It makes it unreadable. All you have to do is sprinkle in a few characteristic words that a particular character likes to use, and that will make the reader "hear" the dialect without making them go insane trying to decipher mispelled/phonetic words.
Let me give you a few good examples of dialogue from recent books, set well, recently.
From DUTCH UNCLE by Peter Pavia
"Right now? I'm trying to get back to New York."
"Is that right," Leo said. "How much money you got?"
"I don't know, I got a few bucks." He knew the amount to the penny, $12.97, but there was no reason Leo had to know it, too.
"You feel like making some?"
Harry didn't know if he liked the way that sounded. "What do I have to do?"
"When was the last time you saw your uncle?"
"My uncle," Harry said. "What uncle? How do you know my uncle?"
Leo looked at him like he knew a secret. "I'm talking about your uncle Manfred."
I love this because Leo answers a question with a question which is just so in character. You see what I mean about the casual tone? This sounds exactly like two guys talking...which is what it is.
From DEJA DEAD by Kathy Reichs
"What do you think you're doing? You break that door, trou de cul, and you're going to pay for it."
"Police," said Claudel, ignoring the asshole reference.
"Yeah? You show me something."
I included this because it shows you exactly what I mean about dialect. She doesn't make it impossible for the reader by trying to do some phonetic hijinks to show a French accent or dialect. What she does is include one small phrase, trou de cul, which she even defines for the reader on the next line in a very off-hand but expert manner.
Now, the final example from a book which is almost entirely dialogue.
From BIG TROUBLE by Dave Barry
"So what you're telling me," Evan Hanratty, organizer of the Killer game, said to Matt, "is that her mom beat you up? Her mom?"...
"She jumped me from behind," said Matt. "And there were two of them. And I wasn't gonna hit women."
"Looks like they hit you pretty good," said Evan, studying Matt's lower lip.
"Well, I got a lot of help from my backup man," said Matt.
"Hey," said Andrew, "call me crazy, but when somebody starts shooting, I leave."
Note the use of italics (reversed here, actually, for purposes of this blog) to place the emphasis on certain words. This is important because it gives this the right rhythm for the speakers, who are teenagers.
My final tips are:
- Don't have conversation consisting of silliness like line after line of "Yes." "No." "The weather is fine." That sort of dialogue is a time-waster and can be covered in a simple: She agreed. Don't waste space on conversation that is going nowhere. There is an exception to this and it was done in DEJA DEAD when the police were grilling a suspect. The suspect only answered in monosyllables, but it was important to the scene.
- Don't use perfect sentences--no one talks like that. Listen to the rhythm of real conversation and try some reflective listening to pick up what people are really saying and how they are saying it. (Just don't get confused and start to think you're a psychologist and begin asking questions like: Is it accurate to say that what you are feeling when you say that is...)
- Don't be afraid to use a sprinkling of contractions in Regency-speak.
- Don't go insane and use a lot of garbled phonetics that no one is going to take the time to sound out or understand.
- Try to keep the conversations "in character". If all your characters sound alike, you've got a problem. People have different pet phrases--it's often a good idea to figure out a rhythm and/or pet phrase for your main characters that will indicate to the reader who is speaking. It will give them a handle and make your characters seem more realistic. For example, you could have a detective who frequently uses the phrase, "I see," when questioning suspects. I like to key this off of other character traits when developing conversational traits. Some people are very sound-oriented. They need to hear something to understand and remember it, so as a student, they may prefer a lecture to reading material in a book. This person may use phrases such as, "I hear ya," or "We're not all singing the same song," when they talk. They use phrases related to the audatory senses when possible. Someone who uses the phrase, "I see," may be more visually oriented. A person who is a "do-er" or who needs "hands on" to learn something, may use phrases such as "I can't get a grip on that," or "I can't grasp that."
- Read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds formal and/or stilted and it's not intended to do so, then cut out a few words. Make it more casual. You don't need to be grammatically correct in dialogue--only in the other parts of your writing. Of course, punctuation is still important. :-)
That's it - have fun! If you have dialogue pet peeves, I'd love to hear about them.