In Good Voice
Episode #8 of the course Ten editing techniques to perfect your fiction writing by K.C. Finn
Have you ever had the feedback that your dialogue isn’t realistic? Some writers get their dialogue described as “flat” or “heavy” or that all their characters sound the same. The truth is, perfect dialogue on the first draft is a rarity among any writers I know, because we’re all trying to use dialogue to get so much across. Personality, information, humor—it all has to fit in. So today, we’re examining how scriptwriters in the world of theater make sure their dialogue is hitting all the right notes, and I’ll show you how to use this technique to strengthen your stories!
Make a script. First, take a section of conversation that you’d like to work on, and remove all the speech tags, prose, and description from around it. Lay it out in script form as though it was written for a play:
Hello, Lydia! Nice to see you. Did you manage to get to the store today?
Yes, it was a nightmare! I went in through the wrong door and crashed into a man wearing a white suit. He was holding a can of soda ,and it spilled all over him. He demanded that I pay him back for the suit, and he said it cost a thousand dollars!
Read for emotion. When you practice reading your script out loud, are the emotional reactions of the characters clear? For example, when Lydia says, “Yes, it was a nightmare!” in the above exchange, we can clearly tell her attitude from the word usage and the exclamation mark. Some characters will use exclamation marks more than others, depending on their personality, but it’s usually adjectives and other descriptions that give indicators of emotion, so make sure you’re putting them in.
Read for relationship. The next time you read your script out loud, examine how the characters speak to each other. What’s their relationship? In the example above, Mark doesn’t seem to see Lydia very often. Lydia doesn’t even respond to his polite comment, she’s more interested in telling him about her ordeal. If these two people are just occasional acquaintances, then that fits perfectly, but if this is a mother and son talking, then we have a problem! Checking this out can really help you with realism in your work!
Read for clarity. The “flat” and “heavy” dialogue comments usually come from speech that is too long and too wordy. The script format will help you see whether characters are taking too many dialogue lines to get a simple point across, and when you read it aloud, you might find opportunities where other characters in the scene should be reacting to their comments, thus breaking up the dialogue and making it sound snappier. In the dialogue snippet above, Lydia’s story gets quite boring, as she uses far too many words to explain it, and there are plenty of chances for Mark to jump in and react with small lines of his own.
You could spend a whole year testing out every piece of your dialogue in this fashion, so try not to get hung up on every single word. Use this technique with the most important conversations in your story, and gradually, you’ll get a better sense of the character’s natural voice in your head, which will impact your writing as a whole.
Tomorrow, Lesson 9 tackles a really big section of editing: The Cut. Writers hate cutting, I know, but I’ll show you how to make the process less painful by analyzing and justifying what’s really essential to your work.
See you there!
Bronwyn Heamus does a great overview of dialogue, which not only discusses reading aloud but will also help you incorporate other areas from our lessons into your dialogue analysis (including speech tags, adverbs and removing distance).
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 10th Anniversary Edition by Stephen King
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