In early October, my father experienced a medical emergency that sent me to Upstate New York. During his recovery, I spent three weeks in my childhood hometown. During hospital visits and errands, I listened to the conversations around me—not just what was said, but the words each person used to convey their messages.
Dialogue is the lifeblood of any scene. When executed effectively, it catapults the reader into the heart of a story. The very best dialogue feels authentic and flows seamlessly from line to line. But don’t be fooled. Effective dialogue requires keen observation, advanced planning, and lots and lots of practice.
Let’s start with two scenes.
The pizza was cold when it arrived. Frank bit his slice then dropped it onto the table. “Man, those motherfuckers must’ve given us a bad batch.”
“A bad batch?” Gene raised an eyebrow in Frank’s direction.
“Yeah, a bad batch. You gotta watch out for dranos in a place like this—you know, people with nothing left to lose.”
Gene nodded as he pulled out a pack of Camels. Before he could retrieve a cigarette for himself, Frank expectantly held out his hand. Gene cleared his throat then handed him the pack. “Yeah, I know what you mean about dranos. Those fuckers will drain you dry.”
A wall of heat blasted us as we entered the house. The thermostat hovered somewhere around eighty, even though it was only thirty-two degrees outside. After a few quick hugs, Grandma ushered us to the back bedroom. “I saved the medium-grit sheets for you’ins,” she said. “They’re the warmest ones.”
Eying the window I planned to open when we laid down for bed, I smiled and said, “They’ll do just fine.”
Even without physical descriptions, there’s no confusing Frank and Gene for Grandma. Two aspects of the writing differentiate these characters: dialect and diction.
You can identify the very best characters with only a few lines of dialogue. Often, their diction reads like a fingerprint.
According to Merriam Webster, diction is a “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.”
When writing dialogue, correctness means choosing the right words for your characters.
To develop a character’s diction, consider the following:
- Slang: Slang is time- and region-dependent. For example, something might be groovy, rad, or dank depending on when you grew up. Someone might make you wicked nervous or hella nervous depending on whether you’re from Boston or California.
- Phraseology: One character might use davenport to describe a piece of living room furniture. Another might say sofa. A third might say couch. Each choice reveals another aspect of who your character is and how they view the world.
- Rhythm: A nervous character might speak quickly or run several sentences together while a depressed character might speak slowly and or use frequent pauses.
- Idioms or Personal Phrases: An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. Many popular clichés are also idioms. Think “piece of cake,” “wear my heart on my sleeve,” and “live off the fat of the land.” While you don’t want to fill your work with clichés, see if there’s a way to create some fresh idioms for your dialogue. A great way to find fresh idioms is to pay attention to the phrases used by people around you. For example, my brother is a fan of saying, “You’re risking a scab” anytime someone engages in risky behavior or makes a smart-aleck remark.
Novelist John Gregory Dunne recorded interesting phrases he heard on notecards he kept in his wallet.
Another way to increase the authenticity of your work is through the careful use of dialect. Again, quoting Merriam Webster, dialect is “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation from other regional varieties, and constituting together with them a single language.”
In writing, dialect could look like “Y’all, I ain’t got a dog in that fight,” or “Yo, that’s some mad fresh pizza.”
While the occasional use of dialect writing can add flavor to a text, heavy use of dialect can backfire. This is more likely to happen when your character is from a group you don’t belong to or the dialect includes a barrage of phonetically spelled words and unfamiliar slang. At the very least, poorly executed dialect overwhelms readers with its unfamiliarity. At the very worst, it can reinforce negative stereotypes and discriminatory views.
Dialect writing is tricky. There are often nuances in regional speech patterns that even native speakers get wrong. When these faux pas occur, writers lose credibility with their readers.
The key to using diction and dialect effectively is to do your research.
- Listen to recordings and historically accurate film clips from the time or region you’re writing about.
- Look for what makes a speech pattern unique and capture that in your work.
- Use dialect sparingly and avoid overuse of contractions and phonetic spellings. Instead of writing a word like “gotta” on the page, consider writing “have got to.” When reading aloud you can always use the shortened form to enhance the sound of your work.
In her blog post “A Writer’s Guide to Speech Patterns,” writer Mara Mahan has an excellent list of questions every writer should consider when designing a character’s dialect and diction. Her questions cover topics like a character’s rate of speech, use of positive or negative statements, and the importance of considering your context. For example, would your character speak to her best friend in the same way she speaks to her parents?
Fleshing out your dialogue is worth the effort. Effective dialect and diction can make the difference between a publication and work that gets buried in a slush pile.
Thankfully, my father is recovering from his serious illness. This means I can focus on the gifts this experience has given to me, such as the chance to develop some mindful attention to dialogue. You don’t need a medical emergency to sharpen these skills. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to train your ear. As you sit with family members, listen to the words they use. Carry a few notecards in your pocket. When you encounter an interesting phrase, jot it down.