Speaking of Dialogue…

In my previous post I hinted at a time in your writing when all your characters start to sound the same, but I also said there was a solution for it. Let’s discuss that in this post.

What do you do when your characters lack their own voice? First, recognize the truth: they sound like one another because they sound like you, and you are only one person. However, as I said before, they aren’t you, so they should have their own voice.

Give them distinct personalities and habits. How do they emotionally react to a situation? That will weigh on what they say. Too often we make the characters say something because it’s a common response, but if they just remained silent for that moment, it would speak volumes of their personality.

For instance, recently in my medieval fantasy story, I had a moment where two characters (Conrad and Irene) were talking until they’re interrupted by commotion outside the room. Conrad could have gone out there and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?” but I realized that’s almost a cliché response. I wanted to be different. Instead, I opted for his mere, intimidating presence to silence commotion as he marched up to them. He didn’t need to demand an explanation. It was obvious by his disapproving stare. Yes, that’s not exactly dialogue, but it’s an approach to consider. Maybe in a specific moment, your character doesn’t need to say anything, and that’s what makes him or her unique.

One way to give characters distinct personalities is by borrowing ideas from TV shows or films. Like a character? Study their personality and find out why you like him. Then use those specific elements and apply them to your own character, and sometimes you can blend elements from different characters into one for yourself. For instance, Richard Castle in the TV show ‘Castle’. His ability to come up with wild theories on the fly is kinda cool. Then you have Cal Lightman from ‘Lie To Me’, and his flamboyant way of entering any room—also his ability to read people so thoroughly is remarkable. Put all those traits into one character, and you have something unique. Like Nikita’s determination and fighting streak, but like Carrie’s (from the show ‘Unforgettable’) superb memory and habit of speaking with a southern accent when she’s irritated? Blend it together.

Once characters are given traits unique to themselves, they start speaking, and you have listen. If you listen, you’ll be able to hear their voice.

Now, I will briefly touch upon using dialect and cursing in writing because it applies to dialogue. “Write what you hear,” is the most popular piece of advice regarding dialogue, and this is true. You have the right to write dialogue however you’d like and how your character wants to speak, but beware; if your dialogue is full of slang and cursing, you are automatically limiting your audience. Is that wrong? No. It’s entirely up to you.

When you use dialect in conversations, you take the risk of confusing the readers. If I were to write, “Ah ain’t ‘now no’hin’ that y’all’s talkin’ ‘bout!” It might take a second or two before you translate the sentence as “I don’t know anything that you’re talking about.” The first version might be completely in character and fits right in with a wild west story, but readers aren’t naturally drawn to characters they can’t understand. You can counter this by using body language because that is the universal language:

I don’t know anything that you’re talking about!” Susan shoved Joseph away from holding her back and marched up Sheriff Marcus. Though he towered over her, she jabbed a finger at his chest…

The same idea goes with using cuss words in dialogue. Yes, that’s common language and it’s heard every day everywhere you go and whenever you turn on the radio or the TV. However, keep in mind that writing is a means of communication, and cuss words are simply an empty expression. Yes, they are used for emphasis, but when you look at the skeleton of the sentence, they take up space and are unnecessary. “But my characters curse all the time!” There are ways around it such as simply writing ‘he cursed’—don’t need to go into detail because that only wastes time and space; it is something readers might skip over because they don’t have time for such filthy language. Once a reader begins to skip passages in a book, they will continue to skip until it’s the end of the book, and they’ll walk away with one impression, “Well, that book had a lot of cursing in it.” They won’t remember the story or the character or the plot because the dialogue got in the way.

Am I completely forbidding cursing? By now you should know I don’t make things that easy. Whether or not you include cursing in your writing is entirely up to you, but as always, you must know what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Be aware of each word. If the word is unnecessary, eliminate it.

This much on dialogue then. Next, we will discuss narration—the part of the story where you actually tell rather than show.

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More on Dialogue Tags

Last time we discussed dialogue tags, and I recommended you replace tags with body language. “What if I just have dialogue—no tags or anything?”

Wait, we’re supposed to meet with the Smith’s today?”

Yeah. Why? Didn’t you get the message?”

What message?”

You see, dialogue is a tricky creature. Wrapped up in it is the pace of the story. How quickly or slowly a character says something reveals a lot about their personality or their thoughts on certain topics. When something (tag or description) surrounds the dialogue, there is a natural pause. However, when dialogue stands alone, it indicates to a quick passage of time in a conversation between characters. This flow of the conversation would be interrupted if body language was inserted. This is how dialogue tags came into existence because they are considered to be ‘invisible’, and they’re brief enough to only tell the reader who said what then move on.

However, as I’ve said previously, tags have been overused. Not all dialogue should be merely lines as I demonstrated above. Such dialogue should be reserved for rapid conversation, but it can be crafted in such a way to show a scene full of tension. Say you have two characters—both of them at a stalemate, and neither are willing to budge. When they converse, they will fire back responses immediately because they know exactly where they stand. However, for the element of tension, little pauses must be inserted as their own line. Consider the following. For this to work, you need to set the scene similarly to having characters in a room standing across from each other, arms crossed and glaring at one another. As long as neither of them moves, the conversation could go something like this.

If you had only done what I said.”

We would be dead then!”

She tilted her head. “You don’t know that.”

Oh really? I’m fairly certain I remember which direction that car was coming when I pushed you out of the way!”

Maybe that was the plan.”

He glared.

I can’t believe you.”

What has happened with today’s writing is everyone has reverted to using one-line dialogue but tag it with ‘said’ for good measure as not to confuse their readers. Pure dialogue has its place in stories, but that place must rediscovered. Just like dialogue tags, you should use pure dialogue sparingly. This forces you to listen to the pace of the conversation and therefore the pace of the story.

“Okay, say I won’t use ‘said’ or ‘asked’, but what if I use tags like ‘begged’, ‘bragged’, ‘cried’, ‘promised’, ‘scolded’, or ‘requested’? Doesn’t that show more?” No—it doesn’t. It’s repetitive. Let me show you:

Example 1: “Please, don’t leave!” she begged him reaching for his hand to stop him from leaving.

Revised: “Please, don’t leave!” She snatched his hand to keep him from leaving.

‘Please’ indicates the plea, and the exclamation point stresses the urgency. Why use a dialogue tag when you can show it using vivid verbs? Here’s another example.

Example 2: “Oh, please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy,” Joseph bragged as he cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. “And it wasn’t you,” he told her.

Revised: “Oh please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy.” Joseph cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. He gave her a smug smile. “And it wasn’t you.”

When you use tags such as ‘bragging’ and ‘begging’, you label the character. To the readers’ eyes and subconscious, that character is proud and boastful because you said he is. There is little room for redemption or surprise in the character because they’ve been stereotyped. However, if you don’t place a label on them, they’re more flexible and fluid. They can surprise you and the reader. That moment of pride or weakness may have been just that—a moment. The character had his reasons for acting that way at that time, and those reasons are for the readers to discover later.

Now, on the topic of using tags such as ‘cried’, ‘whispered’, ‘grunted’, ‘sputtered’, ‘grumbled’—because these are closely tied to body language, they should not be banned altogether. Yet, like everything I’ve been saying, they should be used sparingly. If you set the scene right, and you have two characters sneaking around hoping not to get caught, when they talk, we already know they’ll be whispering. No need to tell us—show us with body language, and maybe even have one character hush the other and tell him to lower his voice. However, if you have a scene out in the open where two characters are talking normally, but suddenly one leans in and whispers, “Whatever you do, don’t look behind you,” that is acceptable because it was unexpected, and the next several lines will likely not be whispered but continued as usual.

So you see, it is fundamental to understand the pacing of your story as well as the environment of the scene. Try to do without tags but rather use body language, and you might surprise yourself.