Characters speak like real people

New writers’ manuscripts are often marked by unrealistic dialogue. Many things can go wrong in characters’ speech, but this is one of the biggest. If the characters’ conversations sound fake, readers will drop out quickly.

Conversations are natural and realistic.

When I say natural, I refer partly to the idea, mentioned last week, that a character’s background and personality will be reflected in their speech.

One fault I often see in manuscripts from people who spent too much time in academia is a lack of contractions. It is possible to use this to good effect in several ways. In a historical novel, for example, the absence or presence of contractions can be used to show the difference between upper and lower classes. In my fantasy novels, some people groups use contractions and others don’t. This gives each group’s “language” a different sound, even though the whole book is in English.

reading script dialogue

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But writers who were taught in school not to use contractions at all run the risk of having all their characters sound stodgy and old fashioned. Especially if you’re writing contemporary fiction, your characters should use contractions. It’s unnatural for them not to.

At a writer’s conference, a writer said her editor changed her use of gonna and shoulda to going to and should have. That is an editor with a tin ear. Such locutions are idiomatic and natural, and avoiding them is clunky and unnatural. Depending on the character, of course. A stodgy, old-fashioned English teacher might very well say things like “I’m going to purchase a new telephone. I should have done so long ago.” But his student would say, “I’m gonna get a new phone. I should’ve ages ago.”

On a side note, let me help out my fellow copyeditors by mentioning a common spelling error we see: should of when what is meant is should’ve, the contraction of should have. When said aloud, should’ve does sound like should of. And many people who’ve only heard the term and have never seen it written down quite understandably spell it the way they think it sounds. The same thing occurs with other “have” formations, including would’ve and could’ve. But there is no orthographical justification for using of in these instances, and Garner’s Modern American Usage calls it “semiliterate.” Use the ’ve contraction, or use shoulda, woulda, coulda, and so on.

Realism in dialogue

The other quality we look for in good dialogue is realism. That is, that one readily believes that real people might really speak such words to one another. Let’s use our hypothetical Professor and Student again.

Professor: As you know, this class will study the Roman Empire.

Student: Yes, sir. I would have taken this class last year, but I could not fit it in my schedule.

Any time you are tempted to use the phrase “as you know,” take it right out. First, there’s no reason for Professor to point out to Student that she knows a fact. If she knows the fact, then she is aware of her knowledge and doesn’t need it pointed out. And there’s no reason for him to tell her a fact that he is aware she already knows. Writers often use this phrase to put information the reader needs into dialogue. Just don’t. If you can’t put a character in the scene who doesn’t already know the fact—and sometimes it’s just not plausible for an outsider to be present—you have to find some other way to work it in.

The Professor’s line is an example of one that isn’t realistic because he just wouldn’t bother saying it. The Student’s line is unrealistic because she wouldn’t say it that way.

Let’s try that again:

Professor: I hadn’t expected to see you in Roman History.

Student: Why not? I would’ve taken it last year, but I couldn’t fit it in my schedule.

Reading your dialogue aloud—or, better yet, having friends read it to you—will also help you see where you’ve written lines or used constructions that just wouldn’t be said out loud by real people.

To get a feel for dialogue, watch films—and I mean, like, good films, not SyFy original movies—or stage plays, especially of classics. Also, when you’re reading other writers’ novels, pay attention to how they construct their dialogue. Try reading plays, too, and watch how playwrights use fragments, interruptions, and speech patterns to create realistic dialogue.

Keep in mind, of course, that dialog should be realistic, which is different from real. About which more next time.


Give characters distinct voices

Editors talk a lot about voice, and it’s a tricky thing to get a handle on. For one thing, there is an authorial voice; that is, each particular author has their own writing style that comes through regardless of the setting or topic of each novel. I prefer to think of that as writing style—though there’s got to be a better term for that—and preserve voice for talking about characters and narrators.

If you are writing in deep POV, your narrative should carry the same voice as the POV character. If you are not writing in deep POV, avoid generic narrator voice and give the narrator a distinctive voice of its own. (See The difference between your voice and the character’s voice.)

Each character has a distinct voice suitable to their temperament.

In my Word Weavers critique group, we read our pages aloud to one another — that is, someone else reads your own work back to you. This is a great method not only for uncovering awkward sentence constructions, but it can also reveal a wealth of dialog problems. Having someone else read your dialog to you is the number one way to improve your dialog. Reading it aloud to yourself is a close second. Continue reading

Substantive Editing: The Secondary Elements

When you finish your developmental edit, I won’t make you do a fast read-through again, unless vast whacking chunks of your book have changed. If that’s the case, another read-through may be warranted, as well as another examination of primary elements. A new writer may have to do several cycles of developmental edits before the story really gets into shape.

Once all the primary elements are in place, you’re ready for the next phase. Continue reading

Developmental Editing: Implementing Your Plan

We’ve now gone through the six Primary Elements:

  • Character
  • Viewpoint
  • Plot
  • Structure
  • Pacing
  • Setting

As I noted earlier, if any of these things have changed, they are likely to cause changes to the secondary elements. So we will do at least one complete editing pass to address any issues that may have come up in these areas. This kind of editing is often called developmental, content, or macro editing, because it deals with large building blocks of story.

We talked about writing your editing plan early on. Now it’s time to implement the plan. Continue reading

Use accurate details to develop your setting

The small details you include in your narrative make a huge difference to how the reader perceives the setting. It’s one thing to say a character made a phone call. Is her iPhone connected by Bluetooth to her car’s stereo so she can make the call hands free? Is she dialing a rotary phone and waiting forever for the dial to spin back after a 9? Does she lift the earpiece of a candlestick phone and ask the operator to connect her?

These two items on the cklst are related—pick the one that fits your novel:

If the story is set in the past, historical details are accurate.

If the story is set in the future, scientific details are plausible.

Both of these points require doing your research. But don’t let research keep you from writing. Be willing to stick in a note (could you telephone Paris from London in 1890?) and fix it later when you learn that no, the submarine cable between England and France wasn’t laid until 1891. Continue reading

There’s more to setting than time and place

The other day I wrote about the importance of establishing your setting early. The location and date are key pieces of data for readers to have, but setting encompasses a great deal more.

The culture and mood are evoked through description and character reactions.

Culture is a vital piece of worldbuilding, whether you’re writing a contemporary romance or a science fiction thriller. Of course, the topic of culture is itself deep water, as it encompasses many things. But for purposes of this discussion, consider the following and how they affect your storyworld: Continue reading

When you want to conceal the setting

Last time we compared minimalist fiction with the failure to provide adequate setting details. But sometimes, a writer may want to hold back setting details to provide a plot twist later. Like minimalism, this is a difficult technique to do well. It’s also been done before—a lot—so you have to ensure you’re doing it in a way that’s original.

The fancy name for this technique is “concealed environment.” Because it’s so often abused, it’s also earned a couple of less flattering epithets. The Turkey City Lexicon calls it “Jar of Tang,” and George Scithers, a former editor of Asimov’s magazine, dubbed it “Tomato Surprise.”

The TV Tropes entry on Tomato Surprise is especially enlightening about just how often this technique gets mishandled. Continue reading