On Dialogue from speculative fiction author:
When I read a work of fiction, the first thing I want is real, believable, three-dimensional characters. And there’s no better way to accomplish that end than through sharp dialogue. We’re talkers, we humans are; we make ourselves known through what we say.
One of the best indicators that an author has gotten dialogue pitch-perfect is when you don’t need “he said” or “she said” to know who is talking. Each character’s voice comes through so clearly that you’d know regardless; you can hear them in your head, their inflections, their intonations, their accents.
Of course, the problem is that it’s easy to overdo. I know one bestselling author who crosses that line with abandon, and the result is characters whose diction begins to sound like some sort of vocal tic. In the latest (and honestly, probably the last) book of hers I read, she had:
- a character who was desperate to extend every conversation, and would use all means to stop the person she was talking to from leaving;
- a character who was a writer, and brought up his publications continuously;
- a character who noted, and made sardonic comments about, what others were wearing; and
- a character who brought up his wartime service in the navy in World War II every time he appeared.
This last one became so obnoxious that I started talking to him. “We already know that you were on an aircraft carrier!” I would shout at him. “We don’t care any more!” Of course, this had little effect on him but a great effect on my wife, who gave me even stranger looks than usual. In the end, I simply skipped over pages of dialogue that featured him – it was painful to read.
I hasten to add that while some of the examples above were clearly meant to add levity to the story, the story itself was not a comedy – in fact, it was a serious psychological thriller. And far from adding levity, it was an annoying distraction. At least to me, and probably to my wife.
So, on the one hand, we have the flaw of characters whose voices are generic to the point of interchangeability; on the other, the flaw of characters whose voices are so unique that they have become unfunny caricatures. And in between lies that wonderful, and narrow, borderland of rich, diverse creations whose presence brings our plots to life. But how do you find it?
I’m sure that there are as many approaches to this question as there are authors, but here are a few things I consider when I’m writing dialogue.
1) Before you write characters, you need to see and hear them in your own mind. Is his diction animated, reserved, flat, clipped? How does she hold her body when she talks? Do social situations make him nervous? Is she eager to speak? Is his speech accented? Does she meet a person’s eyes boldly when she talks? Are his sentences short and to the point, or flowery, long, and full of subordinate clauses?
2) Almost as important as the “what” is the “why.” What is your character’s background? This will dramatically alter how (s)he speaks. A rather facile example is that a college professor will speak differently than an uneducated farm hand. But it goes deeper than that – someone who is motivated by social status will speak differently than someone who is motivated by compassion, or monetary gain, or fear. Two equally well-educated men might have dramatically different diction if one of them is bent on climbing the career ladder and the other is content in the lower echelons. Note that I’m not referring here to explication of plot points; obviously, the motivations of your characters will come out there. But a character’s history, desires, and fears will change how (s)he speaks in all situations, often in very subtle ways. It is a useful exercise to go to a passage in your story, and pick out a line of dialogue, and ask yourself, “Would this character, being whom (s)he is, say this in this way?”
At this point, I must interject a note about swearing. I once had a writer friend state to me, with apparent pride, “I never use inappropriate language in my writing.” I don’t know how I was expected to respond – “Wow, aren’t you virtuous?” is my best guess – but what struck me immediately was, “What if your character swears?” For example, in my novel Shadowboxing, the main character is a high school jock. Well, I’ve known a good many high school jocks, and I can say with some authority that if I his dialogue was squeaky-clean, it would sound ridiculous and inauthentic. So, the bottom line; learn how your character speaks, and stay true to that voice.
3) A vocal gimmick is okay, as long as it doesn’t become excessive. I don’t do this much, not wanting to have my readers shouting at my characters, but I have done it on occasion. In my work in progress, I have one character – a relatively minor one – who is based on a friend of mine who consistently screwed up clichés. (In fact, several of the mangled maxims I put in my character’s mouth came directly from my friend, including the never-to-be-forgotten, “Man, that really burns my goat!”) I tried to make the effect subtler by not having any of the other characters comment on it – they all know her and her propensity, and just take it for granted. I also did my best to use it judiciously, in the hope that enough time will pass between one instance and the next that the reader will have forgotten about it, and it will once again be funny. But I can’t emphasize enough that you have to be careful when you do this – nothing kills a story as fast as the combination of “predictable” and “unrealistic.”
So, that’s my advice. Getting dialogue just right is critical, and worth the work. One of the questions I always ask my beta readers is, “Do the characters’ voices sound authentic?” If not, go back to reworking the dialogue. In time, you will have characters whose voices ring as true as sterling silver.
Here you go:
Gordon Bonnet has been writing with great enthusiasm ever since his first story, Crazy Bird Bends His Beak, won critical acclaim in Mrs. Moore’s first grade class at Central Elementary School in St. Albans, West Virginia. His more recent works usually have to do with the realm of the paranormal, although frequent excursions into the world of the past betray a fascination with history. All of his books are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
When he’s not writing, Gordon Bonnet can be most often found teaching high school biology or playing the flute in contradance bands in and around Ithaca, New York. He also plays the bagpipes, but would prefer if you’d keep that hush-hush.
You can keep up-to-date on new developments in Gordon Bonnet’s writing at:
You can also check out his blog, on science, skepticism, and critical thinking, at:
- On Dialouge (lehrhund.wordpress.com)
- Art of Writing 1: Swapping character voices & publishing paths (rebeccaberto.wordpress.com)
- Fiction Writing Tip #3: Writing Dialogue (nwchristianwriters.wordpress.com)
If you liked this post, please do share.