You can cheat the eye but you can’t cheat the ear, so always read your story aloud. Stories are oral and this is why voice is important. So write like you talk. It really is as simple as that. Say something. Then write it. Record it so you can really listen to what you have written.
If it sounds stilted or wooden, stop and think about what you’re trying to say. Say what you want to convey aloud. Then write it down. A group reading or performance is even more useful since each reader, like an actor, will deliver their lines of dialogue at a different pace. When writing dialogue less is more, so use limited speech tags.
However, it is not only the way the characters talk that is important, spend time trying to understand why your characters say the things they do, and how they feel about it. Think about the characters and their motives:
- What would she do?
- What happens next?
- What would she say?
Make these motives plausible. Get into the body of your character.
Create character sketches and think about their off the page activity so you can step into your characters shoes and know how they would react and speak in a given situation.
- Where do they live?
- How do they talk?
- What non-verbal mannerisms do they have?
- What food do they like?
- What is their taste in music?
All these things can contribute to developing your character’s voice. I spend many hours talking aloud to myself and acting out bits of my WIP just to see how it sounds and works with the action. Oh yes, and don’t forget to use the correct punctuation so your reader knows how it should sound. A quick speaking exercise you can try is to say these three sentences aloud. Notice how the emphasise is on different words in each sentence.
You’re going to be in Strictly Come Dancing.
You’re going to be in Strictly Come Dancing!
You’re going to be in Strictly Come Dancing?
This doesn’t mean your whole book should be full of exclamation marks though. Too many exclamation marks is off putting and in my opinion lazy writing!