The spoken word is very different to the written word, even when writing dialogue. Generally, we human beings tend to only hear what we want to hear, and tune out the rest. If you listen very carefully to speech, you will hear the ‘um’ and ‘ah’ of uncertainty, the uncompleted sentences, and fragments of words, that make up daily dialogue. Written dialogue would be painful to read if it mimicked real speech. In real life, we communicate with more than just words.
The dialogue on the page has to make sense without the unspoken methods we use to convey meaning, like vocal emphasis, facial emotions and body language. I ‘talk’ with my hands, and miss the ability to gesture when I am writing. It is my non-vocal crutch to communication. It means that – when writing – I have to concentrate on giving my characters something to do while they are speaking. If I don’t, they are just talking at each other, which hardly ever happens in real life.
Think about it. Even if you are sitting across from a companion having a private chat, you are likely to be drinking a cuppa, or doodling on a piece of paper, fidgeting with a paperclip or some such item, or twiddling you thumbs. No real person just sits (or stands) and speaks. Give your characters something to do, or you dialogue will feel stilted and strained.
Make sure your character don’t all speak alike, but don’t be tempted to get carried away with verbal ‘ticks’ like dialect. Maybe one of you characters can speak ‘proper’ English, and another uses slang. This is an excellent way of making sure your characters don’t all sound the same. However, don’t use so much slang it dates your work (unless that is what you are aiming for).
I always spend some time learning to ‘hear’ my characters voices, as this helps me with my dialogue. It helps me give them their distinctive speech patterns. Sometimes I pick actors to ‘voice’ my characters, to assist in this strategy; this doesn’t work so well if you only watch shows and movies from one country, or that use the mid-Atlantic accent favoured by Hollywood.
The best way to assess dialogue is to read your work aloud. Then you can pick out what isn’t working almost immediately. You will be quick to realise when a sentence sounds like a confusing jumble. You don’t have to read aloud in front of anyone, but if you can get a fellow writer to help you at this point, their input can be invaluable.
Speech is what separates us from most of the other animals. Written dialogue is what separates the writer from the Muggles.