Today's tip is for authors who have a hard time with dialogue. Which includes me! But the great thing about having been really bad at dialogue is that I've learned quite a few techniques make mine sound better, and I like sharing. (Knowledge, at least; chocolate is a different matter.) And if I can improve my dialogue, so can you.
One of the most important keys to interesting, authentic-sounding dialogue, is voice. So how do you find a character's speaking voice?
You have to try walking in their shoes. Step up to the mic, and imagine you're them, as it were. Consider everything you know about this character: what's their background, education level, age, gender, orientation, politics, wealth, religion, ethnicity, current emotional state, how they feel about the person they're talking to, motivation overall and within the scene.
It's a lot. But in real life, that's how our word choices and speech patterns are determined. Personally, I do a lot of profiling of my main and secondary characters. Once I develop a clear enough feeling for who this person is that I'm writing about, the voice begins to flow. For minor characters, I keep in mind simpler things: age, station, job, mood. Five year olds shouldn't sound like twenty year olds, and neither should sound like sixty year olds. A prison guard doesn't talk like a school teacher out on the prairie; a devout priest will sound different from a policeman. And you can use those contrasts to your advantage and create an extra layer of subtext and tension in your story.
Flat dialogue, or characters who all sound the same can distance your readers from the story. Giving everyone their own, slightly different voice in the chorus makes for a much more interesting read. Diving this deep into your characters' heads may sound like a lot of work, but it pays off in more ways than just better dialogue.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!