Ninja Writers Academy: Writing Natural Dialogue

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Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours for an hour so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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This week we’re going to work on a pretty straight-forward academic aspect of writing.

Dialogue.

Specifically, we’re going to talk about writing natural dialogue. You want your dialogue to make the reader feel like they’re eavesdropping, or even having a conversation with the characters. The dialogue, if it’s natural, will put the reader right into the story.

The Way We Speak Assignment

Ninja Writers Academy: The How We Speak Assignment. This week we're talking about writing natural dialogue.

Here are a few rules that will help:

  1. Only write the interesting bits. Cut out anything boring. Don’t put in all the ums and uhs and likes. This might take you by surprise, but natural dialogue is actually fairly different from the way people really speak.
  2. People don’t say each other’s names. Other than to get someone’s attention, it’s very rare for people who are having a conversation to use each other’s names. No “So, Bob . . .” Or, “You’re right, Tom . . .” Cut all of that out.
  3. Don’t speak the obvious. Don’t have characters say something that the person they are speaking too should already know, just to give the information to the reader. If you really need the reader to know something, you can try introducing a character who also doesn’t know and let someone tell them. But try not to have two neurosurgeons giving each other the basics of the human brain.
  4. Each person’s dialogue gets it’s own paragraph. It’s the visual equivalent of taking turns. One guy talks, and then the other one talks, and so on. One way to get a feeling for the technical flow of writing dialogue is to pull out a favorite novel and turn to a page where people are speaking to each other.
  5. Use beats instead of attributions, most of the time. A beat is a little bit of action that reminds the reader who is speaking, while also adding a little something to the story. Try using a beat of action instead of ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’
  6. When you do use attribution, use said or asked. Most of the time. The thing with ‘said’ and ‘asked’ is that they disappear. The reader doesn’t have to think about what it means the way they might have think about what whispered or shouted means. Also, if you are going to occasionally use another verb as attribution, make sure that it’s a verb that means speaking. Don’t have your characters grin or grimace or groan their dialogue, please.
  7. You probably don’t need as much attribution as you think you do, anyway. For natural dialogue, just let what’s being said flow. You don’t have to let the reader know with every line who is speaking. Only use attribution when absolutely necessary to avoid confusion. You can use a few more beats, since they add something else to the story.

My Turn

Here’s a little bit of dialogue from my work-in-progress. I picked this bit because it shows you how you can use beats to keep three characters talking straight.

Mattie shifted her weight, so she could look at him. “I hardly come here anymore. It’s no fun without you.”

“How did you know I’d be here?”

She shook her head. “You haven’t been gone that long. I still know you, Robin.”

It didn’t hurt to hear her use his mother’s name for him, the way it did when Vin had. He had always been Robin to Mattie. “Do you want to—“

The door opened again. No soft whoosh this time; it bounced against the wall. Rob and Mattie both turned in time to see Guy jump to catch the door before it hit him in the face. He slammed it shut behind him, his face red with something that might have been embarrassment, but could have as easily been anger. He glared and Rob and said, “Philip is looking for you.”

“I know. I’m sorry—“

When Guy turned to Mattie. She slid away from Rob before standing up.

“What are you wearing?” Guy’s voice dripped with anger. “Jesus, Matilda.”

Rob turned back to Mattie. She wore a white dress that looked like summer. She was so light to look at that Rob felt some of the weight of his grief lift just being near her. Her dress didn’t look like a funeral, but Guy’s reaction was a little over the top. “She’s fine, Guy.”

Guy didn’t even look at Rob. He lowered his voice and growled, “Go change.”

Rob came to his feet. Laughter caught in his throat. He expected to see Mattie laughing, too. It was absurd for Guy to be so demanding of her. Instead, he saw her cheeks flush and her brown eyes turn down as she said, “Fine.”

Rob reached his hand out to her and held it there until she took it. “You don’t have to change. My dad wouldn’t want you to.”

“Guy’s right I shouldn’t—“

“No. He’s not.” Mattie tightened her fingers around his and he heard her inhale. “Will you come with me to the ballroom?”

“I’ll walk with you to your villa,” Guy said, coming closer to them. Mattie stiffened next to Rob.

He didn’t let go of her hand. What in the hell was happening? “I need you.”

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Spend sometime working on a piece of dialogue from your work-in-progress. Use the rules in this post to make it as natural as possible.

Come by Facebook and share your work today. I’ll be there tomorrow at noon PST for office hours.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link every week to the Academy post and an invitation to my Sunday office hours.

If you want some extra accountability for your Academy work, check out the Ninja Writers Kick-in-the-Butt Crew. It’ll help you get it done.

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