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Drafting Dialogue

One of the marks of a seasoned fiction writer is believable dialogue. Dialogue happens when two or more characters speak to one another. While some authors are born with an innate talent for imitating speech, the majority of us have to work at it, developing an ear for dialogue over time. We do this by paying close attention to conversations that take place around us in everyday life.

Good dialogue is as much about the words spoken as it is about the natural rhythms of speech. The part of the brain responsible for good dialogue is like a muscle. You have to exercise it regularly in order to keep it in good shape.

Here are some exercises that will help you to write believable dialogue:

  1. Go out into the world with a pencil and a pad of paper. Find a good place to sit, where you can easily overhear people talking. Without giving yourself away, write down as much of each conversation as you can. Try to get everything down on paper, including: ums, ahs, throat clearings, chuckles, sighs, cut-off words, pauses, and ellipses.
  1. Sit down in a restaurant by yourself, order a glass of juice, and listen to all of the conversations around you. Don’t take notes. When you leave the restaurant, go home and write down as much as you can remember. Using your memory will help you to internalize the cadences and rhythms of natural speech.
  1. Record a candid conversation between friends. Go home and listen to your recording. Write a word-for-word transcript of the conversation. Make sure to capture everything that was said. Read your transcript out loud, and then compare it to the recording. Go back and make adjustments and corrections to your transcript until you feel you’ve done justice to your friends’ conversation.
  1. Sit in a room full of people. Listen to they way each person speaks. Take detailed notes on what makes each person’s way of speaking unique. Does one person have an accent? A stutter? A lisp? Does one person slur her words? What is the tempo of each person’s speech? Does someone in the room over enunciate? Write a descriptive paragraph for each person in the room.
  1. Listen to a talk radio program. What can you tell about each person by the way he or she is speaking? Is one person highly educated? Which speaker is extremely poor? Who is most arrogant person on the program? How can you tell? Make a list of speakers and their characteristics.

Now, take everything you’ve learned and apply it to your characters!

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