(This post, written by me, originally debuted on Austin Wulf’s blog.)
You’ve written your manuscript. You’ve fleshed out your characters with distinct physical traits, personalities, and goals . . but somehow the dialogue clunks. How can you make your dialogue pop?
Add interest, variation, and believability to your characters’ speech with accents, dialects, slang, vulgarities, and regional expressions!
1. Less is more. If you only remember 1 thing from this article, make it this- don’t overdo it with brogues, slang, and other speech affects. Distinguishing speech characteristics are like pepper– a little goes a loooong way, and you don’t want to sprinkle it on everything. Besides, dialects are exacting and tricky, and if you think any Wasilla native has a Wasilla accent, think again!
2. Do your homework. If you’re a seasoned world-traveler who is intimately familiar with the correct pronunciations and enunciations of your characters’ speech, you can skip this step. The rest of us can benefit from learning about and listening to authentic dialects.
3. Check other authors’ works. Grab a novel by a successful author you admire and read how it’s done judiciously.
4. Read it out loud. You should be reading all of your manuscript out loud at some point anyway. *NSFW* If you stumble or pause where you shouldn’t, remove the offending speech, *alert off* and replace it with something better.
5. Check for consistency. Make sure Mario doesn’t slip into Marie’s speech patterns and vice versa (unless, of course, the slip is a purposeful part of the story).
6. Ask your beta readers and critiquers. If they aren’t familiar with the particular accents or slang in your manuscript, they might not let you know. So asking for specific feedback is a good way to quadruple-check your dialogue during final revisions.
Bonus- this method can also apply to casual non-fiction, as an identifying trademark and reflection of the author’s writing style. Simply skip steps 2 – 6, and magnify step 1.
Listen to your own speech, and to the speech of people around you- at home, at work, at the market, on the street. What makes somebody’s speech more interesting than another’s? Can you translate this into your own writing? Practice listening to the nuances of speech and you’ll find these nuances creeping (in a good way) into your dialogue writing.