A couple of weeks ago, I was doing some male bonding with my son and father-in-law. We were up at the family cabin, trying out the composite bow my son had received for Christmas. We were all feeling quite manly as we took turns thocking plastic-shafted arrows into a ferocious styrofoam target at fifteen paces. On my son’s third round, he took a shot and hit the target on the very outside edge, causing it to spin and topple.
“That was cool!” my father in law exclaimed.
“Sweet!” I echoed.
“That’s sick!” shouted my son.
Cool - “Neither warm nor very cold; moderately cold”
Sweet - “Having the taste of sugar or a substance containing or resembling sugar, as honey or saccharin.”
Sick - “Suffering from or affected with a physical illness; ailing.”
So which was it, really? Was it cool, was it sweet or was it sick? Technically, it was none of the above. But realistically, it was all the above. And technical does not and should not live in dialogue. I’ve learned that as I slog through countless re-writes of my novel. Technical is boring. Save that for the training manuals. You need to craft dialogue from the little bits. Fill it with idiosyncracies, improper grammar, accents, euphemisms, colloquialisms, etc.
I know my son. He’s real. He’d never say something like “awesome” or “that was rad!” when that arrow hit. And if my Dad was from London, perhaps he would have said “That was a splendid shot, wasn’t it?” But he isn’t, so he didn’t. He said what came to his mind based on his context. I said what came to my mind because of who I am, as did my son. Three different generations, three different, overlapping contexts and three different reactions. Yet each of us meant the same thing by it.
The tricky part for writers is keeping it real with those characters that spring from our heads and onto the page. Dialogue is about getting somewhere, but not always on the direct path. Characters need to arrive in their own mode of communication and usually they don’t take the direct route (unless that is simply a trait of your character). We’ve got to make them believable. We need to hear their voice in our head when they “speak”. I try to read all my dialogue aloud many times over to make sure it has realistic cadence and punch. We need to make those people so real that you could drop them into any scenario and know how they’d react.
Here’s a quick test. I could tell you immediately how each of my main characters would’ve responded if they had seen that arrow hit…could you? ; )
I’ve read a couple of much more detailed posts lately on dialogue. If you want some more from others on the writing path, I highly recommend:
- You Talkin’ To Me? (Dialogue in Fiction) and You Still Talkin’ To Me? (More Dialogue in Fiction) from JannaTWrites’s Blog
- How to Write Effective Dialogue from Courage 2 Create
- Writing Fiction That Wows! Your Reader – the beginning of a series of dialogue “how-tos” from author Marsha Hubler
Got any other suggested resources? Post them here!