This post originally appeared at The Romance Studio on May 14, 2010.
Can we talk? I mean, can we talk about talking???
One of the most important parts of your story is the dialogue. How do your characters speak? If you're writing a historical, they should sound very different from the characters in a contemporary novel. The shy English governess should not introduce herself by saying, "Hi there, Ed. My name's Jane." Teens need to sound like teens and old people need to sound like old people. Granny should not come into the house and say, "That new rap by Jay-Z is off the hook."
Besides making sure that your dialogue is appropriate for the time period, you need to give each character a distinctive voice. In real life, your friends all have different ways of speaking. Maybe Tom has a New England accent, maybe your son starts every sentence with "you know," maybe your neighbor tells incredibly pointless, long-winded stories about herself. Your characters need to do the same. Well, maybe they don't need to tell pointless, long-winded stories - but they do need to sound unique.
If you're getting a lot of negative comments about dialogue in your manuscripts, try going to Starbucks or Panera -- or any favorite cafe. Turn off your cell phone and your iPod and actually listen to the conversations around you. Maybe even write some of them down. The first thing you'll notice is that in real life, an awful lot of conversations are downright incoherent. So many interruptions, stutters and unfinished thoughts! How the heck do any of us ever know what the other is talking about? Well, facial expressions and hand gestures add a lot to those unfinished thoughts. So try to notice those too and jot some of them down as well.
Now you have a great excuse to eavesdrop in public places. You are not being a busybody, you're doing RESEARCH! And really, you are. Listening to other people's conversations will truly improve your writing.
The next time you're working on dialogue for your story, try to use some of the speech patterns you heard while you were sitting in that cafe. And include those gestures and facial expressions too, because they're an important part of conversation. When you're dialogue improves, your story will too. Readers will have a much easier time believing in the world you've created, if it sounds like the one in which they live.