Let’s go back and revisit some dialogue again, this time with a slightly different focus. We’re going to look at how the construction of dialogue works. I’m not talking about things like punctuation. This is more about how we put together sentences when we speak aloud. After all, when we write dialogue, aren’t we trying to make readers hear the conversation as if it is happening?
The first thing to think about is the word selection. By paying careful attention to the words we are putting into our characters’ mouths, we can do a lot to show emotion, to build character, and to create tension. For example, there are certain phrases and words we just don’t use unless we are frustrated, angry, and yelling. If you don’t believe me, try it. Think of a phrase you’ve yelled before and try saying it out loud in a calm level voice. Chances are it sounded awkward and ridiculous. One of the best ways to cut down on arguing is to concentrate on not raising your voice. You will automatically adjust your vocabulary as a result. This is a common therapy trick.
Another thing to think about is the body language and non-verbal cues that accompany dialogue in real life. We get quite a bit of information from these, sometimes more than the words themselves. Rather than relying mostly on dialogue tags to indicate who is talking, try adding in the non-verbal parts of communication. They will give your dialogue more weight, create a more vivid scene, and will solve a large chunk of the telling issues that are a hazard with dialogue tags.
Finally, think about the way we talk. This is part word choice, part non-verbal, and part brain function. All of these things, plus more probably, come together to make how we speak different from how we write. That means we need to pay attention to those subtle differences and incorporate them into our writing. I don’t have any nifty tricks to help with that, though. It just takes practice. As I said before, go out and listen to people speaking. Not to what they are saying but to the words and how they sound. Then go home and try to replicate what you heard, but do it on paper. Read the dialogue out loud. If you can, get someone else to read the exchange out loud with you. Make notes of where you stumble and what it was you wanted to say in those spots.
Take a shot at writing a few practice dialogue scenes and let me know how it goes!