3 Essential Strategies for Writing Authentic Dialogue

Most writers will agree that writing authentic dialogue can be a b***.

Far from trying to be negative (totally not listening to the little voice at the back of my head right now), I thought it would be a good idea to point out the obvious before launching into an explanation of how to address the problem.

I have been looking around for advice on how to write ‘good’ dialogue before and borrowed advice from comic books and screenplays in the past which have given me a lot of interesting insight into the issues at heart.  

So what makes authentic dialogue…well…authentic?

First of all, as a reader, I find dialogue most engaging and most believable when it matches my expectation of the characters’ voices.

This means that dialogue loses authenticity whenever there is a mismatch between the description and the behaviour of a character and his/her/its voice.

Example: don’t have a butch construction worker talk in a posh voice (unless it’s satire but let’s not get into that).

Obvious, huh?  

However, problems mostly arise when the mismatch between voice and character description/ behaviour is not so clear cut.

Something I have therefore started doing at the beginning of every project is a character sketch of every main character (and no, we are not talking about a literal pencil sketch, although there is no reason why you shouldn’t go down that route if it helps).

This is followed by a mini-character sketch of every subsequent character who speaks. Most importantly: the character sketches come before the characters’ first line of dialogue.

Thereby I am creating a checklist that I can use in the editing process to ensure that my descriptions, character behaviours and dialogue lines, match the vision I set out for each and every character.

However, when it actually comes to writing dialogue there are three essential strategies that I use in conjunction with the character sketches:

1. Just speech – no frills

I learned this strategy at a recent writing workshop. It works in the process of drafting a dialogue for the first time as well as in the rewriting and editing process and it works best if you create a character sketch first. So, all you need to do is write the dialogue lines. No ‘he said’, no ‘she said’, no narrative descriptions. Only speech. You can fill the rest in later. That gives you time to concentrate on the words spoken and will help create the voices that will make your dialogue more authentic.

2 No typing – voice only

If you have been training your dragon like I have, and if you have a secret thespian in you, then this strategy could work for you. Whilst Dragon Software can help write faster, it can also help write more authentic dialogue as you can dictate your narrative or dialogue lines. I find that this works best when combined with strategy no. 1 but who am I to tell creatives how to use these tools? Just speaking from my experience here. So, what you do is: switch on the dictation software and speak each character’s lines as if you were acting in a play (or a drama rehearsal if you are not comfortable with the idea of being on stage).  However, be warned that you may need to edit carefully as speech recognition software is not without its flaws.  

3 From Real Voice to Fiction  

Ok, so you have a character sketch and, armed with the two strategies above, you are ready to get going on some serious dialogue. But what to do if you have no idea how the character(s) in question would actually speak? What if you don’t know their type of voice well enough to emulate this in your writing? How to write authentic dialogue then? This is a challenge that I have encountered many times and here is the strategy that I have developed to overcome this problem. Go and find a film, video, podcast (or a vlog even) where you can listen to somebody who may be the same (or a similar) age/ personality/ social class/ nationality to your character and just listen. You can also copy down a few of their sentences for practice and reference (but remember: no plagiarising!).

I hope that you have found this post helpful in creating more authentic dialogue. I know these things are not exactly a breeze at the best of times, but you can do it! Let me know how it goes if you use any of these techniques in the comments below and a happy Sunday to you all!   

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