Creating realistic dialogue – Mary Simses

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By Mary Simses

I’ve always had a bad habit of daydreaming while I drive. Years ago, when I was working as a corporate lawyer, I used to daydream about characters I’d made up. I’d hear dialogue in my head – the characters talking back and forth – and I kept thinking that I needed to get some of those conversations down on paper. ♥

Eventually, I realized if I didn’t start writing stories again, something I’d set aside years before, my distractions might lead to me straight into a car accident. So I enrolled in an evening fiction-writing class, and that began the journey toward my career as a writer, my third career and the one I’m keeping. (I also remained accident-free, which was a good thing.)

I still love writing dialogue. Narrative that goes on for page after page can be tedious to read and to write. Dialogue not only breaks up that tedium, but, by informing the reader about the characters, it helps move the story along.

So how do you learn to write good dialogue?

One way is to become a student of conversation. Go to restaurants or coffee shops, sit down, and listen to what people are saying. What do the voices sound like? Are the people speaking slowly? Fast? With accents? Are they loud or quiet? Do they use simple words or sophisticated phrases? What kind of expressions do they use (old-fashioned, contemporary?).

Learn to differentiate your characters by the rhythms and tones of their speech, their choices of words and phrases, and their accents. Be sparing when using accents or dialect, however, as overuse can be hard for a reader to follow and can slow down the story.

It’s also helpful to study the dialogue of writers who have mastered the art. Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, and J.D. Salinger immediately come to mind, as well as the playwright, David Mamet. I happen to love the dialogue in movies by the director/screen-writer Nancy Meyers. (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give). If you admire the dialogue in particular movies, find the screenplays on line and read them. Screenplays are nothing but dialogue and good ones can teach you a lot. For one of the best examples of how dialogue can move a story along, read Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants. If you’ve already read it, read it again.

Cut out anything in your dialogue that isn’t absolutely necessary to the story. Pare it down to the essentials. You don’t need to include every character’s “Hello” and “Goodbye.”

Don’t use dialogue as a way to try to “unload” a lot of expository information on the reader:

“I remember staying at this hotel,” he said. “I was twelve and we were living in Memphis and it was right before my parents got divorced and my father moved to Nashville. Then my mother had a nervous breakdown and my aunt came to live with us and I learned to play the piano.”

That’s a mouthful, it’s being forced on the reader in a not-very-interesting way, and nobody talks like that in real life. You can get that information across in better ways – by doling it out in bits and pieces in a conversation where there is give-and-take between the characters and by using some internal narrative, for example.

Read your work aloud, especially your dialogue. Fix phrases that sound awkward, change repetitive or similar-sounding words, and always be mindful of the rhythms and tones and word choices of your characters.

Good dialogue can do so much for a story. Like all other aspects of writing, it takes practice, but it’s worth the effort.

Mary Simses grew up in Darien, Connecticut, and spent most of her life in New England, where she worked in the magazine publishing industry, and, later, as a corporate attorney. She wrote fiction “on the side” for many years, during which time several of her short stories were published in literary magazines. Mary now lives with her husband/law partner and their daughter in South Florida. She enjoys photography, listening to old jazz standards, and escaping to Connecticut in the summer. Mary is the author of The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café. Her second novel, The Rules of Love and Grammar, is out now.

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