Are you talking to me?!


“People’s speech is gross.”

I’ll never forget those words, spoken to me by a court reporter as she struggled through the transcription of a particularly dense and complex deposition. (I’m pretty sure it had something to do with forklifts.)

She was referring to the way people speak, with starts and stops and “uhs,” “ums” and the ever-popular “like” and “you know” scattered through the real information. It was her job to distill the verbatim recording down to the real conversation—without the gross parts. (Not an easy feat when you’re recording a discussion of forklift engineering and mechanics.)

A novelist’s job is to create dialogue that moves the story/action along and develops characters, dialogue that entertains and evokes emotion. Think of the great characters in fiction. When they speak, I can hear them in my head. How about you?

When written well, dialogue brings characters to life. When written poorly, dialogue can make a reader yawn, do an eye roll, or (worse) close the book.

So smart writers incorporate real speech into their fiction. They include the starts and stops, and occasionally the “ums”—to a point. Why? The way a character speaks helps to develop his/her identity—the syntax and phrasing will place the character in place and time. Or the absence of identifiable speech patterns can be used as well. Perhaps a character is from the Deep South but has worked hard to rid her/himself of the accent. That tells something about the character. Similarly, a poorly educated character will use more “gross” speech than an Ivy League-educated physician…probably. <smile>

If you’ve had critique partners or reader friends tell you there’s something wrong or just not right with your dialogue, here are a few articles to help.

From Writers’ Digest in June 2014 comes this advice from Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, 2014 grand prize winner of WD’s 2014 short story competition:

My favorite snippet from the article: “Try an experiment. Go to a public place and eavesdrop. It helps maintain your cover if you’re not obvious about it, but just listen to the flow of conversation around you.” (Note: This is a lot of fun. I’ve done it often…not in a creepy way though, I promise.)

Trupkiewicz followed it up with this piece about using dialogue tags, those phrases used to identify a character with a speech verb (e.g., George said, Gracie asked).

Favorite quote (after demonstrating why a simple “said” is often better than “implored” or “wailed” or other equally dramatic verbs): “With an exchange like that one, you might as well run screaming out of the book straight at the reader, waving a neon sign that says: HEY, DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS ONLY A WORK OF FICTION AND THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T REAL!!!”

Need more help?

Check these:

Creative Writing Now explains how to personalize dialect by location, age and more.

This article from Writerly Life describes the mechanics of properly placing dialogue in the story (lines, spaces, etc.).

Questions? Drop a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer.

Happy writing!