Writing dialogue between characters is always a challenge, and it is one I like to build in layers, almost as if I construct an image via layers in Photoshop.
The key to storytelling is to first tell the story. Sounds goofy, but it is true. Who cares about presentation and grammar when you have this story burning to be told? If you have a great idea for the next turn of events, comeback in dialogue, etcetera, write it, because if you procrastinate and see to the technical, you might find the idea evaporated. I’ve had this happen, leaving me with an urge to kick myself – hard – in the butt. Since this body has limbered some since I first started writing, courtesy of yoga, I might actually give myself a nice smack in the derriere.
When we create dialogue, we are essentially working both sides of a two person board or card game. While we have opposing characters (in this context, I don’t mean opposing in the confrontational sense) speaking with one another, it all comes out of our imagination, as we envision how it plays out. I’ve learned that conversation flows in writing as much as it does when chatting with another. If I pause and do something else, the flow is interrupted. What was sparking the inspiration might be lost to other mental stimuli and thoughts. Get it down first, errors be damned. Once it is written out, then move on to the next phase of editing and polishing up.
While editing is key to all writing, it is especially important with dialogue. We tend to write out what is in our head for conversation in a literal way, with the ums and ahs, and hmmm’s. While I will occasionally use the pause sounds we make as we gather thoughts for speaking, to use them comment after comment just will not come across well to readers. Use it once if you believe it effective in a given spot, then let it go.
With writing vernacular or colloquial speech, take care that a broad readership will understand. For instance, I am in New England, and at times I will describe in conversation an accent known throughout the country and even beyond – how many New Englanders do not pronounce the letter ‘r’ at the end of words. Car becomes ‘cah’. Using an accent less well known is risky if you do not identify it in the flow of conversation. One character can point out, “You, my dear, have a strong Boston accent.”
In the editing process, expand the dialogue to three dimensions. Conversation is two dimensional, even with more than two characters. People don’t exist just as words, so in the flow of dialogue, find a way to describe the setting, the mood, the conversationalist’s feelings. Dialogue, that is dialogue between people in person, has a strong body language element, so a writer can consider adding in descriptions of this element, helping a reader feel as if they observe the conversation.
Finally, many actors like to assume the identity of a character they are about to play. This helps them get a feel for what the character experiences, how they might react to different situations. Writers are wise to take this approach, to place themselves in the role of the character they write, to see the world through their eyes. We write best what we know, what we have experienced. In the beginning stages of fiction writing, one is focused on story creation – the overall theme. Over time, as we gain experience, we settle in and begin to explore the field, experimenting with characters, scenes, moods, and a million other things that will help a writer improve what they create. There is no substitute, no shortcut, for just doing, and lots.