I know the words “kick ass” and “Jane Austen” don’t often go together, but trust me, that woman wrote some insanely great dialogue.
I imagine Jane, sitting at her writing table, creating words that flow trippingly off the tongues of Mr. Bingley, Darcy, and the Misses Dashwood. Conversely, my experience writing dialogue is often hellish. If I’m not careful, my characters stand around proclaiming their innermost feelings and all sounding the same. Dialogue is the craft issue I struggle with most.
Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks to write authentic and effective dialogue. Here they are, in my order of importance…
1. Know who your character is, inside and out. Know what they want, where they came from, and the strategies they use to achieve their goals. Early on, experiment, explore their voices so you can hear them “talking” in your head.
2. Make the manner in which each character speaks distinctive. Does he or she have a particular vocal tick? Speak very little? Does the character vomit sentences in a constant stream of nervousness? Each character in your book or movie should sound different. We should be able to tell which character is speaking just by reading their dialogue.
3. Don’t include chit chat or rambling. Try not to write “hellos”, “goodbyes” and “thank yous.” Get to the point of the scene. Don’t let your characters blah-blah-blah like people do in real life (unless, of course, you’re Quentin Tarantino.)
4. Make sure your character is speaking to get what they want. Good dialogue is always directed. Remember, your character has to want something and go for it. Dialogue is one strategy they use to achieve their goal. Even if a character is talking about the past, they are doing it for a reason. Why are they saying what they’re saying?
5. Use subtext. People rarely say what they mean. They go in the back door. Instead of saying “I love you,” a character might say, “I never loved you.” Get it?
6. Don’t use dialogue to download heaps of exposition. It’s ok to sparingly release backstory through dialogue, but avoid major dumps. Parse it out slowly.
7. Less is more. Always. If a scene feels boring, rewrite it with as little dialogue as possible. See how amazing it becomes.
Here’s a scene from the film version of Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. Watch how the busybody character of Mrs. Jennings (played by the wonderful Elizabeth Spriggs) speaks. She wants to find out who Elinor (Emma Thompson) has her heart set on and goes after this info like a crazy pit bull.
Austen clearly knew this character inside and out. She’s gossipy and loud, talks with her mouth full, and when she wants something, refuses to give up. There are many silly women in Austen’s novels and yet they speak so authentically, I’m convinced they’re based on women she knew. If you’re stuck, can you steal a “voice” from someone in your actual life?
Take action! Ask yourself these questions. Do you know your characters’ deepest hearts– what they want and how they go about getting it? Do they speak distinctively? Have you cut out all the chit chat, and made sure that your characters’ words are always in service of their objectives? Do you use subtext, avoid exposition dumps and keep the dialogue spare?
Finding a character’s “voice” is one of the most rewarding parts of the creative process. Kick ass like Jane Austen. Get to know your characters intimately, then let them rip.
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