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It's Not What They Say...
by Mary Cook

Return to Writing Dynamic Dialogue · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

In fiction writing it's the dialogue that lifts your characters off the page. You must ensure your writing is strong enough for the task.

It's not what they say; it's the way they say it

Speech has a natural rhythm, like music. Try reading aloud some dialogue from a novel or short story, tapping out the rhythm as you go. Some people will have a rapid delivery, using short, sharp words like rap music, while others will be slow and deliberate in their choice and delivery of language.

You can tell a lot about a character by his verbal mannerisms. One of my more successful short story characters mixed up traditional proverbs to comic effect. But she was a caricature -- not everyone has such obvious peculiarities.

One person might use "you know" a great deal, while another opens nearly every sentence with "Well". And the majority of people will use contractions such as "don't" for "do not" or "he's" for "he is". But in fiction the lack of contractions may be used to convey the idea of a pompous or pedantic nature. It can also characterize a person whose first language is not English or one who speaks clearly and distinctly to ensure every word is understood.

Punctuation is almost as important as the words. Does your character use long or short sentences? Does he pause often for breath? Does he run his words together because he has much to say in a short time?

Punctuation is also important from a style point of view. Does your targeted publication use single or double inverted commas for speech? Does it precede speech with a comma or a colon? Does the publication use indentations and/or a new line for each character?

Don't use the exclamation point too freely. The words themselves should have sufficient impact. Over-emphatic punctuation is overkill.

You can learn a lot about realistic dialogue by eavesdropping on other people's conversations. An entire plot can hinge on a snatch of overheard and unexplained chatter. Keep your ears pricked at the supermarket checkout, and stretch your neck in the bus queue. Writers have an unwritten charter exempting them from all charges of prying.

Don't be tempted to write with a regional accent by introducing strange spellings. It will make your spellchecker blow a fuse -- likewise your reader.

Anyone who has read Somerset Maugham's Liza of Lambeth will know what I mean. He wrote in a working class London, England, accent throughout, making for laborious reading.

For example, the following dialogue on the subject of childbirth could lead the reader to think Maugham couldn't spell or was writing in a foreign language:

"Well, I've got three, and I'm not goin' to 'ave no more, bli'me if I will, 'taint good enough -- that's wot I says." "You're abaht right there, ole gal," said Polly. "My word, 'Arry, if you 'ave any more I'll get a divorce, that I will."

But it's worth remembering that Maugham's 1897 novel pre-dates commercially developed radio and was written in an age when few people traveled widely. It's likely that not all his readers would have would have known what London residents sounded like.

It's not what they say; it's whom they say it to

We all tend to behave differently in different company. Your characters should change their "voice", vocabulary and degree of formality for different members of society, unless they're particularly uncouth. In that case you have a convenient means of demonstrating just how uncouth or gauche they are, with the accused calling the judge "pal" or the maid calling her aristocratic employer "darling".

Read plenty of novels and short stories and watch television, particularly soaps. It's a wonderful excuse for being lazy - just call it research. Adopt an analytical approach to the dialogue. Ask yourself why a character says something. Would you have written it differently? If you find yourself arguing with the characters on the television, you'll know you're on the right track.

It's not what they say; it's what they don't say

Cut out the superfluous words. Your neighbor may ramble incoherently, but if your character rambles right off the map, you'll lose your reader's attention. A long sentence can turn into a life sentence. You don't need to write every word -- just the ones that have a purpose.

You may have to nod and smile politely when your neighbor tells you every detail of her morning at the shopping mall, not to mention the journey both ways, but the reader doesn't. He has absolute power over your characters because he can close the page on them. Even if a fictional character is meant to be boring, his dialogue mustn't lose the reader's attention.

In "show, don't tell" mode, make your characters "exchange greetings" rather than write a laborious dialogue of "good mornings". Let them "trade insults" by all means. But it's not always necessary to record every word of the exchange.

This is where you need to use your judgment. Greater detail may be necessary on occasions as a means of giving a character more substance or of underlining the relationship between protagonists. Seek someone else's opinion if you don't have sufficient confidence in your own prowess. Often an objective reviewer will let you know if the dialogue helps to move the plot forward or makes it grind to a halt.

As for "he said" and "she said" - those phrases have their place in a game of Consequences, but can often be cut out of a dialogue, allowing your characters' conversation to flow freely.

If you need to use "he said" to distinguish one character from another, that's fine. But tags like "snarled, hissed, barked" can sound faintly ridiculous, having their place mainly in the zoo.

On the other hand, they can be effective when used sparingly and with due reflection. For example "he growled" can be safely used in a love scene to convey sexual desire without being inappropriately explicit. Equally, "snarled, hissed, or barked" can illustrate a personal characteristic or highlight an emotion that's essential to the plot.

It's not what they say; it's why they say it

Dialogue is what gives your characters life. Its only purpose in a story, novel or script must be to move the plot along or to "flesh out" and make a statement about the character. Anything else must go under the knife.

Always remember the three Cs of fictional dialogue and engrave them in your heart or on your forehead.

  • Make it clear
  • Make it concise
  • Make it count.

Find Out More...

Slang and How to Sling It, by Randall Platt

Copyright © 2004 Mary Cook
This article originally appeared in The Writer's Ezine.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Mary Cook is a UK-based freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. Her articles, short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, both in print and online. Her main writing interests are humor, horror, self-sufficient living, and the craft and business of writing.


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