Category Archives: Dialogue

Making Dialogue Sound Real

by Rob Quehl

photo by Stuart Miles | freedigitalphotos.net

photo by Stuart Miles | freedigitalphotos.net

Writing dialogue is tough. Like many, when I began writing, I thought that dialogue was simply prose with quotation marks around it. At a workshop last year, I had the pleasure of meeting award-winning Canadian playwright Gary Kirkham. Talented, funny, and an expert in dialogue; here are four insights he spoke to us about:

  1. Dialogue is completely different from prose. Completely different. Traditional grammar and punctuation rules go out the window. The principles of writing great prose simply do not apply. Creating dialogue is like “converting” the sounds of the human voice into words on paper.
  2. Similarly, it needs to sound real. Only a “professor” type character speaking to his class would speak in a crisp and clean style, with perfect grammar and succinctness. Gary emphasized that real speech can be many things, including: odd, clipped, slangy, repetitive, interrupted, fragmented, stuttering, cryptic, bland, quirky, four-lettered, etc.
  3. Pay close attention to the emotions of the character. Like real people, their speech patterns, vocabulary, and word choices will change depending on whether they are happy, sad, angry, excited, gossipy, giddy, depressed, or drunk. Gary advised us to speak the dialogue out loud and to act it out like an actor would.
  4. Sound. We did a fun exercise to practice this: the raw sound patterns that can be discerned regardless of the words used. The exercise was to produce an emotional dialogue between two people using only nonsense words. Example:“Blah blah blah.”
    “Blah? Blah blah blat!”
    “Twee.”
    “Twee…twee? Skrak twee. Shish fu frak twee!”

    The point of the above example is that if someone is in a gentle, peaceful mood, you hear soft and gentle sounds, flowing, and pleasant to the ear. But when a character gets angry, their speech changes because angry words tend to have harsh sounds, hissing and spitting sounds like: s, sh, t, k, d, f, ck, etc.

    So give it a try on your dialogue. Say it out loud and act it out to see how it sounds.


Rob Quehl lives in Kitchener and is currently working on two novels

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