One of the things we’re renowned for here in Ireland is our chattiness. Give us a pot of tea (or bottle of wine), sit us down together and we’re off. We love conversation. We love hearing stories and telling them. We love to embellish those stories until we have a tale tall enough to attract plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. So when I decided to write books based mostly here in Dublin, I wanted to make dialogue a big part of those stories.
Every writer approaches a book in a different way. Some plot and plan meticulously, some fly by the seat of their pants and some, like me, are somewhere in between. If you asked me if I plan, I’d probably say no, but what I mean by that is I don’t write down a chapter plan or set out on paper how the book will unfold. But what I do is plan in my head. Once I have an idea about a storyline, I begin to imagine my characters – what they look like and what personalities they have. I put them in various situations and learn how they react to things. I give them fears, hopes, dreams – building and building on their characters until I know them inside out. Only then can I let them act out the story. I spend months with the story unfolding in my head before I write a single word. I see it like a movie, imagining what scenes might make me laugh or cry and trying to improve anything that doesn’t feel right. When I feel happy with everything, then I begin to write.
That brings me back to dialogue. It should be easy because my characters have acted out the book in my head. I’ve already imagined them saying these things so writing it all down is natural and should flow seamlessly. Simple, right? Well that’s what I thought when I was writing my first book, Any Dream Will Do. The words spewed out of me – all the conversations that had happened in my head just spilled onto the page. In no time I’d be giving lessons to all those writers who found dialogue difficult! That was until I began to read back. To say I cringed is an understatement. I’d dived head first into every pitfall out there. Thankfully I realised this in time and it was a great learning curve. Here are some of the mistakes I made, ones I frequently come across in books:
- When we speak naturally, we use a lot of ‘ems’ and pauses. I thought by inserting plenty of these into my dialogue, I’d make it more believable. But it’s definitely not the case. I know we want to make the conversations sounds real, but the fact is that too many of these pauses etc, are difficult to read and don’t add anything to the story.
- In some places, I had pages and pages of dialogue. This can become very draining for the reader and sometimes the characters can all blend into one. I think it’s important to have a break in the dialogue, whether it’s just for someone to put the kettle on or to see what a character is thinking.
- Sometimes we feel the need to identify who’s speaking by saying ‘said Mary’ or ‘chuckled John’. It’s fine to put that in here and there but we can’t underestimate the reader. If they’re following the story and if we’ve built our characters properly, they should know who’s speaking without us spelling it out for them.
I’m really proud of the fact that people comment on the dialogue in my books, which makes me realise I’ve come a long way in the last few years. In The Letter, I’ve been told that some of the conversations between the characters made people laugh and some made them cry. As a writer, that’s music to my ears. If I was to give anyone tips on how to make dialogue believable and realistic, aside from avoiding the pitfalls above, it would be these very important things:
- Listen, listen, listen! And what I mean by that is to eavesdrop, snoop and listen in on conversations. The best way to learn how to write it, is to listen to it. Take note of how people speak – how they react to each other, the tones they use and even the facial expressions they make when they’re speaking. The more you listen, the more you’ll be able to replicate conversations on paper.
- Make your characters individual. I find sometimes when I read a long string of dialogue, one character blends into the other and I begin to lose interest. It’s important to have characteristics to distinguish one from the other. For example, in The Letter, one of my characters is quite brash and, much to my own mother’s despair, she swears a lot. A lot of people have told me she’s their favourite character because she’s so identifiable as soon as she opens her mouth!
- Read it out loud! I can’t stress this enough. Scenes that seemed fine when we read them to ourselves, suddenly feel clunky and stilted when read aloud. It’s amazing how much we can learn by doing this. Much as it may seem embarrassing to do it, it’s the only way to make sure the dialogue is smooth and believable.