The Reader’s Ear

I have always been interested in the peculiarities of speech. The ways in which people pronounce or use certain words or phrases, their verbal tics and mannerisims, their accents—it all intrigues me.

We are often told that when writing dialogue, we should write the way people speak. This is supposed to lend authenticity to your dialogue and keep it from sounding stilted. A lot of authors address this by sprinkling in swear words, because “That’s how people really talk.” Okay

That is sometimes true. More often, it is a shortcut for adding a sense of vehemence, urgency or drama to what the character is saying. One of the tools absent from the written word as a form of communicating a story is the tone of the speaker. When the character says, “Dude…” It could mean:

1. I am happy to see you;
2. I am proud of you;
3. That was cool;
4. I really can’t believe you just did/said that;
5. I couldn’t agree more;
6. She’s really hot;
7. Please get off me;
8. Where are you; or
9. Calm down, this isn’t what it looks like.

Obviously, that is not a comprehensive list. Spoken communication has power that written communication does not. Tone and inflection can convey meaning in a more succinct manner.

Inversely, writing can add clarity that is absent in typical verbal communication. When real people talk, they tend to be somewhat inarticulate. There are a lot of pauses punctuated with um…, er…, ah…or other such auditory space holders. While it is true you can write those in, they make for less compelling reading than if you leave them out, or use them sparsely. A character who stutters or stammers can be a chore for both the author and the reader.

In real life, we do not interact in neatly ordered rows of dialogue. We talk at the same time and we talk over each other. That is difficult to effectively render to the written page, and to the extent that it can be, does that make the writing seem more real? No.

Writing and reading do not actually involve speaking and listening. It is all imaginary, and when we imagine something, we imagine the perfect version of it. We filter out all the little flaws. That’s why words of wisdom read, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and not, “A, um, penny—you know, saved and everything, is sort of like a penny earned, dude.”

The object of writing dialogue is not to make it the way people talk, but rather to make it seem the way people talk. The reader’s ear is tuned to the authenticity of the character’s voice. The character’s voice emanates from the words you choose for the character to speak.

By way of example, imagine these lines of dialogue:

“I had admonished Moran on several occasions, but he would not be dissuaded from his course of action. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was of course a regrettable business, and I do wish it could have been otherwise resolved,” said Al Capone.

“See, them fellers over there had a bunch of ships and we had us a bunch of ships, so we just laid right into ’em all fierce-like,” said Lord Admiral Nelson.

“Yeah, right. Like I’m gonna just turn my gold over to you. What? You got brain damage or something chum?” said the leprechaun.

As you can (hopefully) see, even though each of these lines of dialogue conveys the essence of something the characters might actually say, they would not say it in those words. You get the idea. So here is a little exercise, if you’d like to play along: in the comment section, re-write the dialogue for each character in a more authentic voice.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “The Reader’s Ear”

  1. Stephen, dialogue is not my strong suit. In fact, I’d be quite happy if all my characters just nodded, waved, smiled, chuckled, grimaced, winced, sighed, cried or threw up. Unfortunately, I find they want to explain themselves most of the time. Your advice will be helpful in allowing them to speak :)) Thanks!

  2. Very well said. I think “The object of writing dialogue is not to make it the way people talk, but rather to make it seem the way people talk.” should be words to live by for every writer.

  3. “I’d warned Moran for the last time. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a kind of…last resort,” said Al Capone. “I guess actions speak louder than words.”

    “The way I saw it, we had just as many ships as our enemy did. If we intended to win this campaign, we couldn’t have held back,” said Lord Admiral Nelson.

    “Finding me doesn’t make the gold yours. That’s not how it works. Where are people getting these fairy tales from?” said the leprechaun.

  4. Dialogue is at the top of the very long list of why I’ll never be a writer of fiction. But I’m not lacking in opinions on what works. One of those, applicable to this post, is that “in dialogue, a little goes a long way.” What I mean is that while how someone speaks can say a lot about the character, sprinkling a little of whatever it is, say an accent, will first inform and then remind the reader of this characteristic, but won’t get in the way. A word denoting the accent every few sentences meets the need without bogging the reader down in interpreting what are non-standard words.

  5. Agreed, Al. I think you can impart as much with a character’s speech cadence as with trying to recreate his or her accent.

    I’m working up to my own versions of EM’s quotes. Here’s Capone: “I tole him and tole him, but that Moran just wouldn’t listen. That Valentine’s Day Massacre didn’t have to happen. I’m sorry it ended the way it did.” (Gotta work on my upper-crust Brit and my Lucky Charms Irish lilt before I can do the others justice.)

  6. You really make ta great point about dialogue. I used to find it difficult to write, but when I finally realized it wasn’t supposed to be natural, but rather only seem natural, it made all the difference. Expand that idea to the whole of fiction writing and it’s even more helpful. Reality is too big to fit in a book, and no reader expects it to.

  7. I totally agree on the importance of word choice and verb choice in dialogue. Big words and perfect grammar coming from the mouth of a two bit crim are as jarring as hearing the Queen fart in public.

  8. I find the worst mistake new writers make with dialogue is the exchange of soliloquy.I mean, they don’t ACTUALLY have a conversation, in the sense that they interact. They just make speeches. Real people object, interrupt, argue, cut each other off and so forth. On the understatement side of the equation– i,e, “Dude” writers frequently take refuge in adverb and attribution abuse in order to convey meaning.
    The REAL trick with making dialogue REAL is not so much to “sound natural”, but to convey, through all those little physical details, “He licked his lips,” “She tried to smile, wondering he if thought she sounded stupid.” or “Suddenly after his diatribe, Miranda found herself wondering if they were running out of peanut butter. Or Laundry detergent. She could leave then. It would make a great excuse. One he would understand….”
    It’s all about conveying what’s isn’t being said…because as any writer knows, mere language is kinda inadequate when trying to convey a feeling that is often beyond words….
    Need a coach? Actually, I do this for a living. And need to make one. So. Look me up

  9. “I tol’ ‘im an’ I ’ tol’ ‘im, but did that dumb ass, Moran, listen?… That St Valentine’s day hit didn’t need to go down! We coulda worked it out,” said Al Capone.

    “Their fleet and ours were of a number, there was nothing for it but to take the initiative and have at them!” said the Lord Admiral Nelson.

    “An’ to be sure… You t’ink I’m just goin’ to hand over my gold to the likes o’ you? You must have bats in your belfry,” said the leprechaun.

    Just off the top of my head. Good post Stephen.

  10. I LOVE dialog! To me, it helps the characters tell the story, so I have less use of narration–ya know, that “show, don’t tell” thing has been beaten into my head by countless others. My biggest fault, which I try to be mindful of, is using dialect. I must make sure my deep-southern character will speak with just enough of his regional dialect so as to add flavor, but not completely confuse or alienate the reader. Living in southeastern Kentucky, it’s like living in another country. The folks here have such a unique accent, and are quite difficult to understand. I don’t want my readers having to strain and eardrum like I do, so I only use a smattering of regional words when I want a little extra punctuation for a character.

    Nice article!

  11. Dat bum Moran had it comin’. Nobody disrespects Al Capone, baby. So I sent him a little Valetine’s Day reminder, he chortled, cigar in mouth.
    —–whatever. Following instructions in a playful way. But I loved this article, blog, whatever. I have the same kind of ear, always catching nuances in people’s speech. Whatever. You done good! Lol.

  12. Excuse me. But since I don’t consider myself an author but I have some good character acting under my belt, I would like to say that i thought we were supposed to write as the character. When I think of Al Capone the only way I hear him apologize is if he is being blatantly sarcastic. And,
    I believe, even that is doubtful. Also why would he
    Indicate any regret for a slaughter? He had no remorse plus he did it to show others what would happen if they didn’t fall under his wing. Am I taking it all too literally or is it just that I am old enough to have read a lot about this gangstah?

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