Engage Your Speaking Brain to Write Better Dialogue

by Jason Black

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

People have very keen ears for dialogue. They know what sounds right and what sounds strange without having to think about it. That only makes sense; all of us have spent countless thousands of hours both talking to and listening to other people.

You’ve probably seen that statistic about how 10,000 hours of practice at anything makes someone an expert. Do the math: You likely racked up that much listening, developing your ear for dialogue, by the time you were five years old.  No wonder so many writers say that writing good dialogue is one of the hardest parts of fiction: every single reader is an expert in the subject.  You can't get away with anything!

This is why dialogue is such a powerful tool for creating vivid, believable characters. It is also why a single bad line of dialogue can sabotage hundreds of pages worth of laborious character development.

I'm not going to talk about scenes where one character asks a suspiciously-convenient series of questions just so another character can have an excuse to tell the reader a bunch of stuff.  Info dumps are admittedly horrible, but you've probably heard that advice already.  And I'm not going to talk about romantic scenes where the dialogue is so over-the-top you can practically hear the violins swelling in the background.

I want to talk about a different problem, one that is at the root of the troubles many writers have with creating vivid, believable dialogue: When we write, we use slightly different parts of our brain than when we speak, and that can block you from tapping into your own lifetime of dialogue expertise.

The good news is that you are an expert, just like your readers, and you can use that to help you write better dialogue.  All you have to do to tap into your own expertise is engage your "speaking brain" while you write.  Here are two simple techniques.

First, ask yourself what you would think if you heard someone say this.  Go ahead.  Be judgmental.  You may think a line does exactly what it needs to do in the scene, by advancing the plot or revealing some information or whatever it may happen to be.   But too often I see manuscripts where the writer has used dialogue to advance the plot, while forgetting about the judgments readers are entirely justified in making about the characters.

I know it's not politically-correct to say we should be judgmental, but come on.  We are.  Every one of us.  When we listen to people talking, we are constantly making judgments about them based on the words coming out of their mouth.  When you write, you need to put yourself in the reader's shoes and make those judgments yourself.

I guarantee your readers will do this to your characters.  Thus, you need to do it first so you can avoid any judgments you don't want readers to make.  No problem, you're an expert!  You need to evaluate what your characters' tone of voice says about their mood.  You need to figure out what their word choices say about their attitudes towards other people in the scene.  Are they being respectful or dismissive?  Dominant or submissive?  You need to determine whether their speech patterns match the dialect one would expect, given the character's background.

Ask yourself what you would think if you heard someone actually saying the words you just put into your character's mouth.  If you don't like the answer, change the dialogue until you're confident the reader's judgments will match your vision for the character.

Second, say it out loud.  If you're still not sure whether a line sounds right, why not actually listen to it?  Find yourself a quiet, isolated place if you have to, somewhere you won't be worried about people laughing at you, and say the line out loud.  Try to deliver it as you imagine the character would.

This is a great acid test, because the act of forming the words on your tongue and through your lips forces you to engage your true speaking brain.  You really are running the dialogue through the parts of your cerebrum where your own dialogue expertise resides.  If the line doesn't quite work, you'll know it.  Even better, your speaking brain will probably suggest a more realistic alternative for you.

Practice those techniques.  When you hit a trouble spot in your dialogue, bring them out and revise accordingly.  The more you practice, the more you'll find them becoming second nature.  You'll find yourself making those character judgments automatically while you're writing, and your first drafts will improve.  You'll find that after a while you don't actually have to say the lines out loud to double-check them, because you will have trained yourself to engage your speaking brain at will.

The practice is worth the effort.  Dialogue can be challenging to get right, but it's critical to the believability of your characters.  Next month, I'll tackle another problem area for dialogue: what to do if all your characters sound the same.

Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com

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