Learning to write dialogue

I’m horrible at writing dialogue. I mean, I feel like I can capture my own words fairly well, not great but fairly well. But when I try to enter another character, I’m lost. Everyone sounds like me.

So I’m learning.

One of the first things I’ve been trying to do is to listen to people when they speak. Listening to pick out how they speak is different from listening to pick out what they’re trying to say or what they mean. It’s a lot different.

But I’m learning from it.

First off is vocabulary. A lot of people use words I’d never use. Sometimes it’s because the structure of their sentences is different from mine, but many times it’s just because I rely on a different synonym. I say, “As a result,” but rarely, “Subsequently.”

Second is filler. I like soum, like, actuallyrighty’know, and I guess. Other people prefer uh, y’see, don’t you know, or know what I mean. There are a bunch of these kinds of words, and they go a long way in shaping characters in dialogue. Trouble is, I only know my own, so that’s what I default to. I need to learn more and learn which kind of people tend to use which kind of fillers.

Third is sentence structure. Some people speak in questions, lifting the pitch of their voice at the end of almost every sentence, even if they’re not technically questions. Some people speak in run-on sentences, combining everything with and, so, or but until they’ve finished speaking. Some people pass the conversation on to the next person with, “so… yeah.” Again, tons of different options here.

Those are a few things I’m picking up on.

Another thing I’m trying to do is read more fiction, noting in particular how other authors use dialogue in their stories. What works. What doesn’t. What really brings characters to life. What makes certain characters sound different from other characters even if they mean the same thing.

It’s tricky business, really. Like you have to ask yourself, Would this character use pretty much, basically, or definitely? It’s a tough call, but that’s what writing dialogue is all about.

No wonder I’m bad at it.