Engage Your Speaking Brain to Write Better Dialogue
by Jason Black
People have very keen ears for
dialogue. They know what sounds right and what sounds strange
without having to think about it. That only makes sense; all of us
have spent countless thousands of hours both talking to and
listening to other people.
You’ve probably seen that statistic
about how 10,000 hours of practice at anything makes someone an
expert. Do the math: You likely racked up that much listening,
developing your ear for dialogue, by the time you were five years
old. No wonder so many writers say that writing good dialogue is
one of the hardest parts of fiction: every single reader is an
expert in the subject. You can't get away with anything!
This is why dialogue is such a
powerful tool for creating vivid, believable characters. It is also
why a single bad line of dialogue can sabotage hundreds of pages
worth of laborious character development.
I'm not going to talk about scenes
where one character asks a suspiciously-convenient series of
questions just so another character can have an excuse to tell the
reader a bunch of stuff. Infodumps are admittedly horrible, but
you've probably heard that advice already. And I'm not going to
talk about romantic scenes where the dialogue is so over-the-top you
can practically hear the violins swelling in the background.
I want to talk about a different
problem, one that is at the root of the troubles many writers have
with creating vivid, believable dialogue: When we write, we use
slightly different parts of our brain than when we speak, and that
can block you from tapping into your own lifetime of dialogue
The good news is that you are an
expert, just like your readers, and you can use that to help you
write better dialogue. All you have to do to tap into your own
expertise is engage your "speaking brain" while you write. Here are
two simple techniques.
First, ask yourself what
you would think if you heard someone say this. Go ahead. Be
judgmental. You may think a line does exactly what it needs to do
in the scene, by advancing the plot or revealing some information or
whatever it may happen to be. But too often I see manuscripts
where the writer has used dialogue to advance the plot, while
forgetting about the judgments readers are entirely justified in
making about the characters.
I know it's not politically-correct to
say we should be judgmental, but come on. We are. Every one of
us. When we listen to people talking, we are constantly making
judgments about them based on the words coming out of their mouth.
When you write, you need to put yourself in the reader's shoes and
make those judgments yourself.
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009
I guarantee your readers will do this
to your characters. Thus, you need to do it first so you can avoid
any judgments you don't want readers to make. No problem, you're an
expert! You need to evaluate what your characters' tone of voice
says about their mood. You need to figure out what their word
choices say about their attitudes towards other people in the
scene. Are they being respectful or dismissive? Dominant or
submissive? You need to determine whether their speech patterns
match the dialect one would expect, given the character's
Ask yourself what you would think if
you heard someone actually saying the words you just put into your
character's mouth. If you don't like the answer, change the
dialogue until you're confident the reader's judgments will match
your vision for the character.
Second, say it out loud.
If you're still not sure whether a line sounds right, why not
actually listen to it? Find yourself a quiet, isolated place if you
have to, somewhere you won't be worried about people laughing at
you, and say the line out loud. Try to deliver it as you imagine
the character would.
This is a great acid test, because the
act of forming the words on your tongue and through your lips forces
you to engage your true speaking brain. You really are running the
dialogue through the parts of your cerebrum where your own dialogue
expertise resides. If the line doesn't quite work, you'll know it.
Even better, your speaking brain will probably suggest a more
realistic alternative for you.
Practice those techniques. When you
hit a trouble spot in your dialogue, bring them out and revise
accordingly. The more you practice, the more you'll find them
becoming second nature. You'll find yourself making those character
judgments automatically while you're writing, and your first drafts
will improve. You'll find that after a while you don't actually
have to say the lines out loud to double-check them, because you
will have trained yourself to engage your speaking brain at will.
The practice is worth the effort.
Dialogue can be challenging to get right, but it's critical to the
believability of your characters. Next month, I'll tackle another
problem area for dialogue: what to do if all your characters sound
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Jason Black is a freelance
book editor who actively blogs about character development. He
recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers
Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at