Creativity · Writing

Talking about dialogue

Arguably one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction is creating realistic dialogue. The problem lies in the fact that everyone speaks differently, with subtle nuances like slang, pronunciation, and accents. It’s easy enough to pick up on these things when you’re listening to someone speak. In writing, however, it’s difficult to convey those subtle verbal distinctions without coming across as pandering or offensive.

There are some writers who set the standard: Elmore Leonard, Mark Twain, David Mamet…but I don’t think most writers consider giving their characters distinct voices. And it makes me wonder if it really matters. Do readers notice when all the characters in a novel speak the same way?

My opinion is that most readers don’t pick up on it. If they’ve suspended their disbelief or are simply engrossed in the story, then they probably won’t ever notice. But it is something I find distracting. That’s not to say each character must have distinct vocal traits, but there should be something about they way a character speaks on the page that sets them apart from the other players.

I know that when I’m writing a conversation I hear the characters in my head and try my best to get that onto the page. I shoot for realism and a unique voice for each of them, but not so much that it becomes a parody. Basically, I’d like my character’s voices to be different enough that I can write a back-and-forth conversation without all the “he said” and “she said”.

I look at it this way: In real life we all speak differently, sound differently, use slang, and have regional accents. In a story, our characters don’t have those audible distinctions, so writers have to provide them. We give our characters their voice and they deserve to have their individual quirks and nuances included on the page.

It’s only fair. Besides, it helps the characters to stand out, to be realistic, and to help us relate to them.

RB

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M H Thaung

I don’t know if most readers would consciously pick up on it, but perhaps it helps with immersion? Maybe speech pattern can do double or triple duty to signify culture as well as the character’s mood – plus what they’re explicitly saying, of course.
When I first started writing fiction, all my characters spoke as if they were delivering keynote lectures! Now just one does, and it’s been a lot of fun giving the others different voices.