Everyone in the world does not speak like I speak. Which, by the way, is a good thing, because I’m from New Jersey, and we fine New Jersey folk aren’t always known for our fabulous verbal skills. For instance, as a child I might have said, “Gimme some wooder!” Which, translated into proper English, means: “Give me some water.” My mother, bless her heart, seems to fully believe that parmesan cheese is, in fact, pronounced “parmeesheen” cheese. I live in California now, and people are able to spot my slight (I hope) New Jersey accent. Just because I’ve chosen to try to speak properly, it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy hearing the strange, funny, fascinating ways others speak the language. I’m an active listener; I sit on trains or buses or in coffee shops and bookstores and bars, and I listen; I want to know how everyone speaks. My ears tingle when a nearby stranger turns a crazy or original phrase. As a writer, I listen to people speak because it helps me tremendously when I’m working on dialogue. (As a human, listening to people speak is just great entertainment.) I want all of my characters to have their own unique voice. I don’t want my characters to all sound like they’re males who were born in New Jersey. That’d be pretty boring. If a story I’m writing has fifteen characters, I want fifteen distinctive voices. Every character must be unique, with their own perspective on life, with their own inner-voice, and their own cadence.
Easier said than done.
Earlier in my long, but not yet illustrious writing career, I had a terrible problem. All of my characters sounded like me. I had a voice as a writer, and all my characters were horribly afflicted that voice. Even the female characters sounded like me…like me if I were wearing a dress and didn’t have a penis. I was writing stories, because the stories were swirling in my brain and needed to come out, but I hadn’t fully developed the characters. They were just tools to get the story where I needed it to go. But they weren’t people. They were either me, people I knew, or they were generic.
I’ve written previously about my aversion to plotting. I simply prefer a story to flow right from my noggin to the paper or computer screen. What I will do, however, is write out a list of characters and any important attributes. Who are these people in my story? Where were they born? What schools did they attend? Did they come from a happy home or a miserable one? Was their family wealthy or broke? Does my lead female have Daddy issues? Does my lead male have Mommy issues? How much heartbreak or loss have they suffered? Are they cursed by nightmares? Have they seen a ghost? Have they been abducted by aliens? What’s their take on the JFK assassination? Writing a brief history of my characters helps me shape their actions and their voice. I need to know these people before I tell their story and speak for them.
Writing good dialogue, even when you have your characters nailed, is still tricky business. Dialogue has to sound natural, yet be completely unnatural; dialogue has to be wittier, more concise, and flow better than we humans actually speak, yet sound exactly like we humans speak. It’s smoke and mirrors. A magic trick.
I tend to write dialogue in a loose way. I’ll write, “I’m gonna get some milk.” When I read, “I am going to get to some milk,” all I can think is: That sounds completely unnatural. Or, I’ll read a line like, “Hello. My name is David. What’s yours?” and I’ll cringe. If I’m reading a story, and a single line of dialogue sounds phony, it takes me right out of the story. I work for a company that evaluates screenplays. Each week I’m given a few screenplays to read and review, and I’m stunned by how many of these scripts contain stilted dialogue. I want to scream every time I read stuff like, “I have heard there is a problem. What is going on? What is the problem?” It’s just lame and unreal. Dialogue needs to be dynamic. Dialogue is the hardest part of writing, for me, at least.
But when I read or hear great dialogue, it sends tingles down my spine. That’s what I strive for every time. I want people to remember my characters and the words they’ve spoken. I always read back my dialogue, either out loud or in my head.
So, always remember: Dialogue must be natural-sounding, but transcend “natural” completely.
When dialogue is done right, the results are downright amazing. You don’t forget great dialogue.