Take Five: #10: Speak true - a quick exercise in writing dialogue

Take Five
Five-minute reads about writing
to help you with NaNoWriMo
Nov. 1 - Nov. 30, 2011
Courtesy: Sasha Soren (Random Magic)
Twitter: @RandomMagicTour

#10: Speak true

Writer Maeve Binchy mentions dialogue in a video clip included in an earlier Take Five post (Take Five #4: The rule of five). She's right, sometimes people forget to write the way someone might actually speak, writing lines that are stiff, formal or just not believable.

So, today we're going to spend some time on dialogue. Dialogue in a novel (or script, where it comprises most of the story), if done well, can sound just as if you're overhearing a conversation.

It depends on the story you're trying to tell, but most informal or everyday speech is usually filled with contractions, hesitations, pauses, or people interrupting each other.

You can capture the rhythm of speech, the way it flows, the inflections of the words, slang, even tone of voice, in print.

But to do that, you have to stop writing what you think something should sound like, and just go with what you know to be true, from experience - or based on your imagination, if you're writing a fantasy novel, for example. But it will still sound more natural if you just listen to the way people actually speak, rather than putting words in their mouth that they'd be unlikely to say.

For today's Take Five, the assignment is really simple - pick out a vlog or some sort of discussion on YouTube or elsewhere. Don't write anything for five minutes, just listen to the way the person speaks.

Update: You can use this video, from a Random Magic vlog tour, as a quick sample, if you like. Click to watch the video, then just note to yourself the unique way a person happens to speak.

Things to note:

- Where they use contractions

- Where they pause

- How they express a particular emotion or feeling (if applicable)

- If they have a discernible accent of any kind, zero in on which particular pronunciation in which word or words made you notice it

If you're watching a video clip of a discussion including more than one person, you can study:

- Where and when people interrupt each other and for what purpose

- Natural pauses in conversation and how people react to them

- When and where people speak in tandem

If it saves you some time, you're welcome to just click on the Bookie Brunch playlist, which includes videos from the series, so it should give you a selection of vlogs to choose from.

Once you've done this exercise for yourself, pull up your work on the screen, pick a page featuring dialogue, and read it out loud to yourself.

Then, you can consider this for yourself - if you overheard this particular conversation, would you consider it to be an ordinary kind of conversation, or is something a little off, stilted, maybe more theatrical than everyday speech.

If so, rephrase it the way you might actually say something. You might not use your particular form of speech for the character, but it will make you aware of alternatives.

You can also apply this to a new paragraph. Start off, not by writing down what the characters are doing, but what they are saying - but rather than getting the words down perfectly, just jot down what you 'hear' them saying.

Then just fill in the rest of the details later. It might feel strange to jot down only the dialogue, but the conversation will read more naturally on paper, later on.
- Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic

About this series

The Take Five series is curated by Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic. You can find out more about the book here, if you like:

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