Creating Fictional Characters—Part 6: Putting the Right Words in Their Mouths

Let me tell youI’ve learned about dialogue since the first draft of my first novel. When I’d finished about half the book, a writer friend read it. When she returned the manuscript to me, she said, “Do you realize you don’t have one word of dialogue in this entire story?”

My characters talked—there was just no dialogue. I wrote things like Debbie asked Jake to fix her breakfast. He told her he’d be glad to.

I started writing dialogue but decided not to edit the first part of the manuscript until I finished the first draft. My mother, who was a reader but not a writer, said, “I don’t know what it was, but the second half of the book was a whole lot better than the first.”

In Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing-For Fiction and Nonfiction, Gary Provost says “Dialogue is real speech’s greatest hits.”

Listen to a normal conversation. You’ll hear a lot of nothing.

“How are you doing?”

“OK. How about you?”

“Can’t complain.”

This kind of conversation won’t move your story forward or reveal character. It will simply bore your reader.

Rather than a mirror of real conversations, dialogue is:

  • Two or more characters talking with purpose, not just chit-chatting but talking for a reason
  • Something artificial that appears real—realistic, not real, without all the uhs and you knows and boring information

To create dialogue that works:

  • Use real speech rhythms
  • Include implication and evasiveness as real conversation
  • Eliminate the trivial and banal
  • Include the unspoken (body language) as well as the spoken

Dialogue has several purposes:

  • Characterize – to prove what you said about the characters is true
  • Give information – but only information that would naturally be exchanged in conversation
  • Advance plot – move action forward
  • Convey tension – shortcut to conflict

Conversations in fiction can be described in three ways:

  • Summary – brief description of what was discussed: John told Susie about his argument with Joe.
  • Indirect dialogue – description of what was said without quotation: John told Sue that he and Joe had an argument and almost got into a fight. She asked what caused the argument, and John said … This is how I wrote dialogue when I first started, and even my mother thought it was boring.
  • Direct dialogue – verbatim quote:

“Joe and I got into an argument at the pool today. I thought he was going to hit me,” John said.

“Oh, dear, “Susie said. “What in the world brought that about?”

Use direct dialogue for important conversations:

  • Don’t waste direct dialogue on inconsequential discussion or exposition. If the reader already knows the information and the only purpose of the dialogue is to provide the information to another character, summary or indirect dialogue is probably better than dialogue.
  • Set off dialogue with quotation marks with a comma between the spoken words and the tag.
    • If the tag comes after the spoken words, the comma goes inside the quotation marks: “I went to town yesterday,” he said.
    • If the tag comes before the spoken words, the comma goes after the attribution: He said, “I went to town yesterday.”
  • Put each speaker’s words in a separate paragraph. Although it’s best to break up the dialogue so one speaker doesn’t give a monologue, if one character talks for a long time, break up his or her words into short paragraphs. In that case, put quotation marks at the beginning of the paragraph only and do not close the quotation marks until the end of the speaker’s words.

Use dialogue tags for attribution of speakers:

  • Avoid using a tag if it’s clear who’s speaking. If there are only two characters in the conversation, each of them can speak a few times without attribution. The reader can follow a few exchanges between two characters without losing track of who’s speaking.
  • Said is transparent and should be the tag used most often. Writers often think said is boring, but readers hardly know it’s there.
  • Use other tags—answered, explained, replied, stated, etc.—sparingly. Dialogue isn’t improved by using many different tags; in fact, readers find it distracting.
  • Never use a verb that is a physical impossibility—smiled, chuckled, grimaced, grinned. A character can smile before or after he speaks, but he can’t smile a word or chuckle a sentence. The title of the book Shut Up! He Explained: A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue (now out-of-print but available from used booksellers) shows the wrong way to write dialogue.
  • Don’t add explanation or adverbs
    • If the dialogue is strong, you don’t need them: He stormed out of the room and slammed the door angrily. If he stormed out of the room and slammed the door, the reader can figure out he’s angry.
    • If the dialogue is weak, strengthen the dialogue: He left the room angrily is not nearly as strong as He stormed out of the room and slammed the door.
  • Use action tags – beats: “Hurry or we’ll be late.” Toni gulped down the last of her coffee and tossed the plastic cup in the sink. “Today’s going to be a busy day.”
    • To complement the dialogue—in the example above the actions reinforce the words that Toni is in a hurry.
    • For variation—people talking are not disembodied voices. They are doing things as they speak, and so should your characters.
    • For pauses— an action tag varies the pace.

Give your characters distinctive voices. In Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight Swain writes

The words you speak, what you say and how you say, it reveal you as a particular person. … These are things the writer must think about, be aware of. If the words he puts in his story people’s mouths are out of character, he’ll be hard put to rise above them.

  • Gender—in general, women strive to make connections and men negotiate to see who’s on top of the ladder.
  • Age—a teenager is likely to use a lot of slang; an elderly person is apt to speak more formally.
  • Education/literacy level—a high school dropout usually doesn’t sound like a college graduate. 
  • Background experiences—where someone lives, events they have experienced, people they associate with all have a bearing on how they talk.
  • Attitude and self-image—a self-confident person will sound different than a timid person with low-esteem.
  • Favorite topics—your characters’ conversations will reflect their interests and activities. A race car enthusiast will sound different than someone who loves to read classic literature.

Different characters have different speech patterns.

  • Characters can use slang or proper English, short or long sentences, complete sentences or fragments.
  • Use contractions to sound natural unless the speaker is pompous or not a native English speaker.
  • Don’t use strange spellings to signify dialect; use rhythms, word choices, and word placement instead.
  • Don’t worry about proper grammar—write as the character would speak.
  • Don’t have characters repeat the other person’s name. Normally when you are talking to a person individually, you don’t call them by name. On the other hand, if several people are in a conversation, you might call a specific person by name if you wanted to talk to him or her.

Characters talk to themselves:

  • Interior monologue is what goes on in the character’s head: unspoken thoughts.
  • Direct thoughts are shown in italics: The world has gone crazy.
  • Use the Q trick—state the thought in the form of a question to avoid attribution: Had the whole world gone crazy?

Here’s an example of how not to write dialogue:

“Jane, do you remember that your father died last year and left his entire estate to your brother Carl?” Kay asked.

“Yes, Kay, I do.” Jane answered. “We suspected that Carl knew something about the mysterious secret in my father’s past and that he bribed our father to leave him the estate.”

“Your cousin Marvin agreed with us,” Kay responded. “Now it looks like we may be finding out what really happened, Jane.”

“Marvin’s mother was my father’s sister. They had a falling out years ago, and no one knows why. Have you found out something, Kay?” Jane demanded.

Leave a comment and tell me everything you find wrong with this poor example.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Amy Jeffries

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