Dialogue and Character Development
by AJ Barnett
An important part of character development in a story, is the manner in which people speak – their dialogue. The way people speak says a lot about their outlook, upbringing and frame of mind.
- Dialogue can impart information in a seamless way
- Dialogue offers indications to a character’s persona and social class
- Dialogue presents clues to a characters disposition.
Fifty percent of a novel
- Some lecturers claim that up to 50% of a novel will be dialogue.
- Contemporary books shun long pieces of descriptive work. Today’s readers want things to move – narrative slows things down.
- Readers are brought up on a diet of TV and films with loads of dialogue – little narrative. They expect literature to be the same.
- Acceptance or rejection of a novel can hang on the balance and quality of your dialogue.
- If dialogue is going to compose half the novel, it had better be good.
At its best dialogue develops the story and reveals characters more directly than descriptive writing. Let’s face it, plain old narrative can be quite boring. Who wants their character or story to be thought of as boring? Dialogue keeps a story vibrant.
Show don’t tell
Instead of saying someone is outraged, let the character shout and shriek. Show what’s happening by the tone of words, the staccato remarks, or conversely the gentle exchanges of love.
Vary the tempo
- Use a verbal exchange of opinions and banter to infuse buoyancy into a heavy scene
- Use dialogue to separate long passages of descriptive work
- Use speech to vary the tempo of your writing.
Don’t assume though, that you can merely pop up with a smattering of any-old dialogue to perk up a dreary section. Speech should fulfil an objective. If it doesn’t, if it’s only chitchat, scrub it out and find something else for your character to do. Every word in your novel should count whether it be dialogue or narrative. Surplus luggage is not allowed.
Stock words in Dialogue
Sometimes it’s a good idea to give your central characters a phrase or a few stock words of dialogue, which are theirs alone. It can help identify and set characters apart. It happens in real life so why not in your story. We all know people who have this habit – in fact, we probably all do it to some extent – listen to your own dialogue sometime.
Let your character say the stock words on odd occasions so readers gradually identify them, but don’t do it too often, or you could make them sound slightly crazy. If your heroine is bouncy and thinks life is “terrific”, you shouldn’t make it her standard answer to every situation, better to just use the term now and then, so readers increasingly recognize a tendency.
Identifying the speaker by dialogue
Carefully consider the words and phrases before you ‘tag’ a character with them. Make sure the words are in keeping with character and social class. Remember, don’t over-do it, but do bear in mind this really is an easy way to identify the character.
High-quality dialogue can help readers identify with characters. If characters hold what appears to be a natural conversation, readers will become caught up with their story. They will feel they are part of what’s going on.
Dialogue has many uses. It can shed light on complex conditions. It can put us in the picture about the past, explain the present, and give suggestions about the future, but whatever way it’s used, it should always be obvious – make it plain.
Be careful of what you allow your characters to say. The area where people come from, often affects the way they speak. This doesn’t mean you should try to write in dialect or regional accent. The occasional use of a local expression can be enchanting, but a whole dialogue in dialect is almost unbearable to read. Make the dialogue plain and make it obvious.
- Characters should NOT indulge in chitchat. Every bit of dialogue should move the story forward. If it doesn’t contribute in some way, scrub it out.
- Dialogue should NOT be true to life – people speak in garbled ways – it should just read as if it’s true to life.
- An easy way to check whether your dialogue is okay, is to record it. When you play it back, you’ll hear the shaky bits.
- Every central character should have their own unique ‘voice’ the reader begins to recognize – their own overused words – but not TOO overused. Be discrete; don’t make them sound like morons by using too much repetition.
- The more you understand your characters, the better the dialogue will be.
- To a certain extent, you can impart age and character with dialogue without having to explain things to the readers. Young people speak in a different way to older people, but beware of using the latest ‘in’ words. Your novel might soon become outdated.
- Quality dialogue helps readers to become immersed in the novel.
- Keep your dialogue to short bursts. If a piece of dialogue entails more than one paragraph, it turns into verbal diarrhoea.
- Stay away from substitute words for ‘said’. Words like ‘affirmed’ ‘articulated’ and ‘vowed’, highlight themselves rather than how it’s spoken. ‘Said’ is a small word that disappears and allows readers to concentrate on the story.
Make the most of your dialogue. Don’t waste the opportunity to enhance your story and you won’t go far wrong.
Since 1994, short stories by AJ Barnett have been published in magazines, summer specials, broadcast on prime-time radio, recorded for ‘Talking Newspapers’, and published in international writing competitions.
Three books have been published on Kindle, SHORT MOMENTS, YESTERDAY, and THE TASTE OF LONELINESS each containing ten tear-jerker stories.
Under the pen-name Ellie Jones, two adult novels have been published, PAST SINS, and BETRAYED, both set in the sierras of inland Costa Blanca, Spain. A third novel is expected in spring 2012.
AJ now lives in Spain, overlooking vineyards, villages, and olive groves.
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