Writing natural dialogue is hard to do. Natural speech is full of stops and starts, contractions, ummms, clumsy grammar and choppy sentences. If you write all your dialogue exactly as people speak, it will be a chore to read, but if you write it the way you’d write an English assignment, no one will believe in your characters. Strike a compromise. And remember: different characters from different cultures or with different levels of education will speak differently – but don’t try to convey their differences by simply throwing a slang word in from time to time. The whole speech needs to make sense and ring true for that character. When you’ve finished writing your dialogue, read it aloud and ask yourself: Would this character really say this?
Consider this example, which I’ve exaggerated for effect:
‘I am sorry, Rory, but I can no longer employ you in my carpentry business. Now you are no longer an apprentice, I cannot afford your wages. Although my sons have left home, I still have two younger children to support. But do not worry; I have arranged for you to begin working for Mr Taylor instead. It is a good job and Mr Taylor is a considerate employer. You will not regret going to work for him.’
Yikes. What’s gone wrong here? There are two main problems:
1. For a start, the author has tried to give us background information through dialogue. They clearly want us to know that Rory has just finished his carpentry apprenticeship, and that his employer has older sons and two young children – and they’ve decided that using dialogue would be a great way to tell us this. It’s not. People just don’t talk like that; it comes across as contrived.
2. The other problem is that the language is too formal. People don’t say ‘I am’ and ‘it is’; they say ‘I’m’ and ‘it’s’. Neither do most people speak in grammatically perfect, fluent sentences or long monologues.
Here’s the above sentence revised: ‘Sorry, Rory, I just can’t afford to keep you on – not now you’re on full wages. You know Mr Taylor? He offered to take you on. Don’t worry, he’s a good bloke. You’ll be fine.’
My first tip is simply this: economise with your words. Since wordiness is my own number-one fault as an author, this is my number-one tip. Reread your writing and ask yourself: which words can I do without? Which phrases can be condensed? Could I replace an adjective/noun combination with a more descriptive noun? Or an adverb/verb combination with a more powerful verb? Trim the fat from your writing to make it concise, punchy and compelling.
This was my first draft of the above paragraph:
Be economical with your words. This is my number one tip because wordiness is a fault that I’m prone to, and so I must always be on my guard against using unnecessary words. Don’t overdo the adjectives. Instead of using an adjective/noun combination, try using a more descriptive noun, and instead of using an adverb with a verb, use a more powerful verb. Reread everything you’ve written and ask yourself: which words can I do without? Which phrases can be condensed? If you can trim the fat from your writing, your prose will be tighter, more punchy and more compelling.
I could probably trim this further. Have a go at improving it yourself!
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.