Good for you if you have a grasp of vocabulary that would put most SAT students to shame – but most of that isn’t needed when you are writing dialogue and action. If you rely on long, multi-syllabic words just to make your dialogue sound impressive, you are probably defeating yourself.
Unless you have a character who characteristically tries to sound like a dictionary when they speak, then don’t fill their speech with long and unnecessary words. Read the dialogue aloud, does it sound natural or does it sound false and stilted. Be honest with yourself, is that the way your character really speaks?
Would most AVERAGE high school students say "I need to eradicate my response on the examination" or would it be more believable for the student to say "I need to erase my answer on the test"? Think which statement sounds more realistic. Chances are your dialogue should sound just like people you talk with everyday.
You should concern yourself with a different pattern of speech only when you are placing your setting in a different time period, country, or if the speech pattern is specific to a unique character trait such as someone who doesn’t speak the language well, has a speech impediment or is trying to show off by using fancy words.
Keep your narrative simple as well. You shouldn’t have to rely on the narrative to describe a character’s emotions – their speech and actions should suffice. Be very stingy in using adjectives and adverbs – hurriedly, anxiously, nervously, angrily, happily – are all words that are better assumed by a character’s actions. Instead of: "More tea?" She poured the hot water nervously. Use: "More tea?" Her hand shook as she poured the hot water. If you say that a character is shouting, it is redundant to say ‘shouting loudly’; the same thing applies to whispering quietly, creeping slowly, and other such combinations. If you feel that using an adjective is absolutely necessary, be careful with your placement; use ‘she said nervously’ and not ‘Nervously she said’. Don’t duplicate words in the same sentence such as ‘Nervously she said nervously…’ Always read your words aloud if you are not sure and listen to what you’re saying – it should sound normal and flow smoothly.
Adding unnecessary words to your writing can also make your words seem less potent. Sentences like ‘She started to laugh’ have less impact than ‘She laughed’, likewise ‘He had come to the saloon’ versus ‘He came to the saloon’. Reduce repetitive words – you probably don’t have to keep repeating that your character is doing something like breathing (if it fits and sounds right, then use it) but there is no need to keep finding a different word to say the same thing such as inhaling, gasping, panting, etc.
Most people use contractions in their everyday speech. It is usually okay for your character to say "I don’t want" instead of "I do not want". At the same time be careful that you are using correct contractions and don’t rely just on the sound. A very common mistake is to say "could OF" instead of the correct "could’ve" (for could HAVE). Try not to use slang "contractions" unless that is characteristic of the way your character really talks (like ya know, gonna, gimme, ain’t). Using a thesaurus and dictionary while you are writing may be helpful, but the end result shouldn’t sound like it.
NOTE from the Editor:
Welcome to a complete month of lessons about the craft of writing and being a writer. In the BONUS Section of this book you’ll find more than 50 brain-starting exercises to help you get those words on paper. These short lessons and activities have been previously published as part of the acclaimed Amazon Kindle blog Living, Writing, Breathing available by subscription for Kindle owners, and now are available to every writer.
Living, Breathing, Writing: A Lesson A Day
Chelle Cordero is a multi-published author with Vanilla Heart Publishing and a full-time freelance writer with local and national newspapers and magazines. She resides in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, family and three spoiled pussycats. In addition to her books and articles, Chelle pens a weekly writing course available by subscription at Amazon Kindle Blogs http://bit.ly/Wmg8W and volunteers with her local ambulance corps as an EMT. Her website is http://chellecordero.com/