Dialogue gives life to our stories. It speeds up the story and adds spice and action. We learn a lot about the characters from how they speak to others. How the characters speak is as important as what they say. A whispered phrase might be sinister or a confidence shared. We have more than our outside or inside voices. Some of us speak differently to children and older people. We speak to the boss that can hire or fire us differently from how and where we talk to our peers. We may sound one way when we are meeting someone for the first time as we cautiously decide how we feel about that stranger.
We would much rather read one character’s fiery accusations and the recipient’s red hot retort than learning in exposition that Sue and Jeff argued. Readers like being eye witnesses.
Putting words into someone else’s mouth might seem daunting for writers, but it is essential to making the characters come alive for our readers. To achieve that, we must give them voices that are uniquely theirs. A five-year-old doesn’t sound like a college professor unless we are portraying a precocious child. I once worked for a professor who greeted us in the small office as if he were at the podium of an amphitheater. I often wondered how he spoke over his morning coffee with his wife. Since she called him “Doc” instead of his given name, I imagine it was no different. I filed him away in my writer’s notebook alongside the boisterous airport waitress who called everyone honey. I used her in my novel, Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song. I’m still looking for a story the pompous prof will fit.
One way to make your character’s dialogue unique is to consider his background and interests. A man who made his living on the sea, when pushed to do something he doesn’t want to do, might refuse by saying, “Thanks, but I sail my own ship.” An aviator in the same situation might say, “I’m never too proud to turn back. I’d rather be laughed at than cried for.” An artist sees life in colors, form, and composition. You’ll find plenty of help with those on the web by typing in an occupation or ethnicity and add “sayings.”
Imagine yourself chatting with your friend over a cup of coffee. If you wouldn’t use a word in that conversation, don’t put it into the mouths of your characters.
We strive to give the essence of natural dialogue without getting our readers’ tongues twisted, in the same way, we offer the essence of real life but without the disorganization. We pick up expressions and idioms common to the regions we live. It helps make our character identifiable and colorful. “He’s as common as pig tracks” might be foreign to a native of Queens, NY, but it is as natural as barbecue to a rural Texan. In a mystery, a linguist or astute detective might suspect that a character is lying if he swears he has lived in a region all of his life.
Only someone unfamiliar with the expression would use “y’all,” or worse yet, “yall,” for a singular reference. It is plural, with the apostrophe subbing for “ou” the same as it subs for the “no” in cannot. And although some Texans omit the t or g sound in pronouncing some words, and some Bostonians might say Linder instead of Linda, readers get annoyed when we must struggle through a lot of phonetically-written dialogue.
It might be better to try it once and then revert to the correct spelling. No matter what the differences are in our pronunciations, we spell words the same. It also applies to depicting characters for whom English is a second language. You might check the online dictionaries and perhaps adapt the native speech pattern briefly using it before reverting to easily readable dialogue. Throw in a foreign word familiar to the speaker as if he were struggling to recall the Anglicized word, and we get the message. For example, “I go now to the supermarché.” Or “Telephone me, s’il vous plaît.” It doesn’t take much to put the idea across.
Tags for some reason are troublesome to new writers. Tags help readers know who is speaking and more importantly, how they say it. Words are spoken, articulated, nattered, expressed, told, stated, voiced, declared, and communicated. They are preached, lectured, chatted, yelled, whispered, etc. Some of these verbs depict a calm exchange of ideas. Others indicate an attitude. That doesn’t mean that we have to use all of them. Too much variety becomes comical and distracting.
There is nothing wrong with the word, said, in ordinary dialogue. For the most part, it is unobtrusive [as long as you don’t reverse it to “said she”]. After a few lines, it fades away from the reader’s consciousness, and they treat dialogue almost like a play script.
That is a good indicator that we can forego tags in many circumstances. When only two people are conversing, and you establish that they respond to each other, you can omit the tag.
Another way to do it is to initiate an action. For example:
Angela slammed her book down on the table. “You are breaking up with me?”
Benson crossed his arms and returned her glare. “It should come as no surprise.”
Punctuation in dialogue is inside the quotation marks. I see that violated in many manuscripts that I critique. Another common error is an abuse of the exclamation point. More than one can’t make the dialogue any more emphatic. While I’m at it, we never use exclamation points in exposition. And we rarely use them in dialogue. Exclamation points are the equivalent of yelling. Nor do we write the dialogue in capital letters to indicate loud voices. The exclamation point loses its credibility when overused. Let the words carry the emphasis.
We use dialogue to move the story forward while revealing something about our characters. If you contrast what your character says to what she thinks, it doubles the impact. For example:
Sarah stared at her feet. “Yes, ma’am. I understand.” I understand you better than you think, you old bat. “It won’t happen again, Miss Summers.”
Above all, keep dialogue natural and to the point. A lengthy conversation about how windmills generate power is far from subtle. It is better to use a brief sentence of exposition.
And this final thought: Sentence structure can convey the mood. Full sentences are leisurely and in calm times. Fragments are okay when the character under duress. For example:
Jacob grabbed the phone and dialed.
The voice on the other end was calm. “911. What is your emergency?”
“Help! My dad! He’s not breathing!”
“The address according to Caller I.D. is 819 South. Is that correct?”
“Wha- uh, yeah.”
“I am dispatching an EMT to that address. Do you know CPR?”
“I can talk you through it. Put the phone on speaker.”
The contrast between the frantic boy and the calm operator adds tension and emphasizes Jacob’s fear.
When your characters speak to one another, we hear them too. If the conversation is mundane, we tune them out and lose interest. Sometimes it not what they say but what they don’t say. Readers look for the body language, and subtleties as the characters talk—that steely stare, that tick at the corner of his mouth, or the side glance over her shoulder, tell us more than their words. They are like subtitles to the conversation. There is a bit of magic in dialogue. What can you pull from your top hat? That’s how I approach dialogue. I welcome your comments and helpful hints about how you deal with dialogue.