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Writing dialogue does not come naturally to everyone. I am definitely one of those who found it intensely unnatural. As I have said in at least one prior blog post, I have actually written an entire novel with no dialogue.

It was one of my earlier attempts, and that novel has been completely rewritten, and published, after years of writing practice.

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

What I am is a natural introvert. Talking to people can be awkward. Talking in public is downright terrifying.

As a person with introvert tendencies, it seems like talking to myself in my head should be natural, and what else is writing dialogue if not having a conversation with yourself through your characters?

The difference is that when you write dialogue the assumption is that others will read it. And there comes the fear of sounding stupid and ruining your story with bad dialogue. If you’ve watched any amount of T.V. and movies, or read a lot, you know there’s no shortage of bad dialogue in writing. But this is your dialogue. It’s your story. Your baby. You also know how cruel critics can be.

My best advice on writing dialogue is practice. Practice, practice, practice. Then scrap it and do it all over again. Put yourself in your character’s shoes and play out the scene as if it’s happening to you. You are the character. What would you say? How would you respond? How does what is happening make you feel?

Roleplay that story with yourself. You have the imagination for it, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to come up with the story in the first place.

After you’ve written the dialogue read it yourself. Read it to yourself, read it out loud, read it to someone else even if it’s your dog. Heck, record yourself reading it and play it back to listen to yourself. Does it sound like something anyone would say? Does it sound like something your characters would say? Would you keep reading if it was someone else’s story?

Don‘t let forced dialogue stand. If you have to force it, it will feel forced to the reader. Sometimes that’s okay. Maybe your character is awkward and their dialogue is forced because of it. Kudos to you, you just aced that by feeling clumsy and weird writing their dialogue and having to force it.

Most dialogue needs to be natural. It needs to come as naturally to you as it’s supposed to come from your character. In the heat of the moment, in the midst of a stressful moment, you may freeze. You may not know what to say. But your character has to say something sooner or later. What rational or even irrational thing pops into your head? Does it fit? And for well thought out dialogue, characters who are naturally easy speakers, their dialogue needs to reflect that. It needs to come as naturally to you as describing everything else in the story.

Fine tune your dialogue later in editing. Delve into it character by character, making sure each one is true to any idiosyncrasies you gave them. What makes that character different from the others in the way they speak? Are they more or less formal? Do they use slang? Make sure that slang fits the character. A New York born and raised who talks like a cowboy needs a backstory to explain why they talk in a way that is not characteristic as a  New Yorker. Are they middle class and talk like an inner city gangster? Why?

When you are in the midst of writing multiple characters it can be easy to slip into streamlining dialogue and mixing up the individual characteristics meant to make one character stand out from the rest, making them sound all alike. You can catch yourself using one character’s unique way of talking on the wrong character. On the flip side, people from the same background do tend to talk alike.

When you are writing a particular period, it can also be easy to slip back into the natural current day way of speaking. When fine tuning in editing, you can use things like Microsoft Word’s find and replace to search out specific words and phrases used today that didn’t exist in the era your story is set in. Once you’ve caught and fixed most of those, the few errors left will stand out more because they don’t fit the flow of the story anymore.

Differentiate your dialogue from your narrator. In most stories the narrator is you describing the scenes and events. It’s your narrative. I prefer to avoid verbal shortcuts like contractions in the narrative. I intentionally edit with the purpose of trying to find and fix them because I will fill that story with contractions in the heat of the moment of writing. Use proper grammar. Use complete sentences, except when you are intensifying the drama with disjointed broken sentences in situations where they are better to fill the reader with that feeling of urgency the scene needs.

On the other hand, your character’s internal and external dialogue should be just the way people actually speak and think the words they say. Listen to people around you. How do they speak? How do you speak? People use contractions probably more than they realize to shortcut speech. They don’t always express their thoughts verbally or internally in complete proper sentences. In some circumstances they may even say half the sentence and stop for any of a hundred reasons.

When you have an actual narrator, an outside character relating the story, treat them apart from both the characters’ dialogue and your narrative. Remember, the narrator is telling the story because it’s important to them. They want to be sure they are understood, so they will have their own personality traits and dialogue idiosyncrasies, but they are likely to be more deliberate in their words choices than the characters in the story they are telling. I would be scarce on the contractions unless their character makeup requires them to use them frequently. Let their obvious moments of dialogue directed at the reader blend flawlessly into your narrative so the reader is drawn into their story.

But you still need to learn to get comfortable with writing that dialogue. You need to learn how to write it.

Dialogue should be as simple as you having a conversation with someone you are comfortable talking to. As simple as really getting into that story and roleplaying it in your head where no one needs to know.

One of the things that helped me when I was completely incapable of writing dialogue was letting myself write the scene without it. I would pour myself into it heart and soul, not just describing the scene, characters, and events, but writing in detail the emotions (and later as I was getting better the thoughts) of the characters, and largely of myself, in the moment.

I knew I would edit much of that out, but I was setting the tone and feeling of the moment as much for myself as for the reader.

Then, after the scene was written, usually after editing it repeatedly, I would focus on adding in the dialogue. By now I am familiar with the scene and the emotions of it. I would put myself into the characters, their viewpoint, needs, wants, and feelings, and write whatever dialogue came to me.

I would do it over and over and over, scrapping the dialogue and redoing it. The things that stuck and came back repeatedly usually ended up in the story.

Stop thinking about the dialogue and just write. The more you think about it, the more you are likely to put up that mental block against dialogue like I did. It’s natural to want to avoid what makes you uncomfortable. Nothing exists but the scene and your feeling it. Whatever characters’ words poured into my head with the rest of the scene, when they finally started to come, I wrote down. Like the rest of the scene, it’s okay if it sounds dumb at first. Or just feels dumb because of your self-doubts. That’s what the magic of editing is for.

No one expects a first or second or tenth draft to be perfect. Often they are pure rubbish. That first draft is getting your thoughts and impressions of the story down on paper.

Agonizing over making your first draft dialogue and narrative perfect holds you back from truly writing. Let yourself let go and let what will come pour out of its own accord.

Most of all, practice and practice and practice writing dialogue. Practice a thousand times and then do it again. Do small scenes. Flash fiction and micro fiction are great for practicing every aspect of your writing skills. They are short scenes and you are focusing on nothing but that moment because the rest of the story only exists in the black void of stories yet to be. It is only after you have done something enough for it to become normal that it will feel natural.

The more comfortable you get with writing dialogue, the easier it is. And then the more you can focus on the mechanics of dialogue. The do’s and don’t do that because the rules say so, unless this or that or that. By the way, when it comes to dialogue proper writing rules go out the window and are meant to be broken because, unless you are an old-school grade-school teacher, who actually talks in proper language in conversation anymore? Right?

So practice. If you have trouble or feel awkward and weird writing dialogue, do yourself the favor and practice. Practice a hundred times, a thousand, and more. Write little scenes without homes just to practice roleplaying that dialogue where it doesn’t matter because it’s not part of the story you are invested in.

And most of all, keep writing my friends.

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Dialogue can be a tricky beast. Knowing how to punctuate it can leave a writer scratching their head and second guessing themselves.

Here is a helpful post link for punctuating dialogue.

http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/

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