Eaves dropping is rude. That’s what my mum taught me. But I do it all the time and, if you’re a writer, so should you.
I’m not saying this just to justify my own behaviour. Whenever you have more than one character in a story, you’re most likely going to have dialogue, and you want that dialogue to sound as natural as possible. In order to do that, you need to know how people speak.
Most of us speak with other people regularly. Our friends, family members, people we meet in the street or at the shops, but when we’re doing this, we’re thinking about the topic of conversation, not the way in which we’re speaking. That’s why listening to others speak is important for improving your dialogue writing.
What Should You Be Listening For?
- Language choices: I guarantee that your mum speaks to her friends differently to how she speaks to you. And, that you speak differently to your friends to how you speak to your mum. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we make different language choices depending on who we’re speaking to, the situation we’re in, whether we’re drunk or sober (and thus our inhibitions are different) and what our emotional state is. Listen for these language choices next time you’re ‘listening in’.
- Slang and Colloquialisms: Slang refers to language used by certain groups of people – teenagers, soldiers, nurses, people within the LGBTQI community. Colloquialisms refers to informal language, which may include slang, that most (if not all) native speakers from a particular country or area know. For example, ‘lit’ is teenage slang, ‘duffer’ is an Australian colloquialism for a someone who’s a bit of an idiot. By listening to the slang and/or colloquialisms someone uses, you can find out a lot about their age, profession and where they’re from. If they sound awkward when saying it (like I would saying something is ‘lit’) this might give you another clue about their personality.
- Space fillers: We pepper our speech with lots of ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘like’, ‘so’. It gives us time to think. In this case you’re listening for things not to include in written dialogue. Written speech should sound natural, not be an exact replica of real-life speech, because adding in all those space fillers would just slow the pace and make reading the dialogue a grind. Used strategically, these space fillers can work well but don’t feel you should include them in every place a person might actually say them.
These are just some of the basics of speech to keep in mind. Start here, and see how you go. When you’ve got a moment to yourself, make a point of listening to how people speak. Just, don’t get caught.