Talking in a Novel

I have been reading this book for the last few weeks about the art and craft of writing. It’s written by Stephen King and titled On Writing: A memoir of the Craft. I think every writer should read this book. Its not about writing scary stories, its about being a great writer. I have been reading slow, trying to soak up as much advice and wisdom as a can. Early last week I read a section pertaining to dialogue in which he talked about how it should work and compared good and bad examples of it from modern writers. Since my first novel, most short stories and future books will tend to be on the side of character drive; dialogue, plays a very important role. I know as an author, especially a newer one we improve as we grow and get better as writers. Despite the belief or hope of many, we never ever get it perfect on the first try no matter how hard we try.

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One bit of advice King gives on dialogue is keeping it “honest” and more to the point keep it real I guess you could say. The dialogue must be natural otherwise we are lying to our readers he feels. I tend to agree in a big way. If I am reading a book and the dialogue does not feel right, like something I would not say or something I would not hear people say then it doesn’t fly with me. I think however, we do need to take into considering context. One reviewer of my novel Running Northwest from the United Kingdom, basically said certain words and phrasing I used in dialogue sounded weird. If I remember right, it had something to do with what some call “pet names”. I guess our  pet names are different from theirs and things really do get lost in translation.

As a reader, it can be hard to understand regional dialect, speaking patterns, accents and things like that for characters in a novel. As a writer, it can be really hard to write in one of these ways and do it honestly and well if you are not used to hearing and speaking it every day and have it come over well for the reader. I would imagine there are many tricks for this depending on genre. According to King, people swear and say shit when we talk in real life so our characters should swear in dialogue. Guys say things like “hey dude” in real life so there is nothing wrong with our characters in novels doing the same….we do NOT live in a Victorian society anymore. I work in a diner and hear the girls I work with call customer’s sweetie, dear, darlin and buddy 20 times a day at least. It probably happens more if I pay attention instead of being Awesome.

The English language is changing and has changed depending where in the world you are. What used to be frowned upon in literature and writing is now allowed or looked over. And, is great example of that change.  For who knows how long it was considered bad form to start a sentence off with the word. However now as people with Master’s degrees in English and Dr. in front of their name have told me, the written form of English is changing too model how people actually speak in the real world. It is getting to the point where it is perfectly acceptable to use the word And at the beginning of a sentence in writing. Like it or not that’s just the way it is.

One trick I have been experimenting with came to while I was watching a movie after I had read this portion of On Writing. I closed my eyes so I could not see the screen and just listened to what the characters were saying and how they were saying things. After a while of listening, I noticed things that I did not before such as lisps, emotions in the words when the actors spoke, tone and a few other things.

Then being somewhat computer intelligent I tried this with dialogue from the next novel which I am writing now…as best as I could.  In one section of a chapter, I recorded myself reading conversation between 2 male characters. Then, with a little computer magic I changed the tone of the characters voice so they did not sound like me; as best as I could at least. Then I waited a few days.

On playback, even though it sounded a little weird I noticed a few things. I hate being read to as an adult even when I know it is me reading to myself…it’s just one of my things. I can’t listen to audio books for the same reason. Anyways, as I listened I noticed some issues with how it flowed, and timing…It just felt off. I didn’t notice this reading it allowed when I was writing it. I noticed a few things that I liked also. This little exercise made me go over and redo this portion of dialogue. I did the same thing with a page from a book by Steve Berry called the Paris Vendetta just to try it with something I did not write. It made me feel the characters a little more and hear there personalities, something that is not always easy to do when reading aloud to yourself.

This little exercise may seem like a pain and truthfully, it kind of is. It would be really time consuming to do this with all dialogue in a novel.  I guess I would suggest just a portion of it at the beginning maybe, just so you get yourself on the right track. Nevertheless, I learned some valuable insight into my own writing style when it comes to dialogue. I thought it might help other people so I thought I would pass it on, I am no one special yet.

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6 thoughts on “Talking in a Novel

  1. Hi, great post. Thanks for tweeting about mine. You know, your post did make me think about the tone of the dialogue, but also about its consistency for characters throughout the book. As time goes by and the novel is still in the making, do you find that it gets harder to stick to the same tone attributed to characters at the outset? Speak soon. Keep up the good blog and sorry to hear you are troubled today!

    1. Thanks for liking the post, it means a loy. I think its great you referenced the same Stephen King book i did. I LOVE that book.
      For tone of dialogue I think its easier to keep it consistent with characters in something like a short story. In a novel however, the tricky thing i found while writing RNW and the current novel was trying to figure how to change the tone of dialogue for a particular character in certain situations and do it well. If you do it too quickly it seems abrupt and doesn’t make sense. I imagine the reader thinking something like “hey what the hell just happened, why did he say that”. I don’t know if there is a technical term for it but i’m thinking something along the lines of segueing if you know what i mean. Yeah you can do it in narration but i think its more interesting and realistic to do in dialogue and it takes a shit ton of experimentation.

      1. Totally agree! this is so refreshing to have somebody spelling out that it’s not just a question of getting the dialogue right bit by bit, you know, looking at each sentence as you go along, but as a, uninterrupted line – it’s still the same people even after a few weeks of months. My novel is aimed at the 9-11 age group, and to have all of a sudden a child speaking like an adult just because I need him to is ridiculous! Thanks for your thoughts!

      2. Oh wow yea I get that. My first novel has a character with an 8 year old son and people were pissing and moaning about his dialogue and that it wasnt grammatically correct. I was like “hey when is that time you ever heard an 8 year old using proper grammar?” Stuck to my guns there

      3. ditto, Mr Oregonmike98, ditto. Although kids speak differently if it’s between each other or with adults, I suppose. At least some. We all do to a certain extent. We even change our accent!

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