Making your characters speak

It’s National Short Story Week, and my contribution is a few words about dialogue. Short fiction, by definition, works with a limited number of words, so each of them has to count. Dialogue is a great way to put every word to good use, to convey character, reveal details, even secrets, increase tension (conflict is the essence of a good story), and move the story forward.

When you are writing dialogue – and more so when you are editing dialogue – consider what each line of dialogue is doing, what is it’s function?

Here are some problems with dialogue:

Dialogue for dialogue’s sake, which doesn’t reveal, develop characters or the story or increase tension. You will recognise this when reading, or perhaps not, because it tends to be dull and unmemorable.

The characters sound too similar: the voice of the writer is more prominent than the voices of the characters. Not a short story example, but I notice Lee Mack’s (his character’s and his writer’s) voice in Lucy’s dialogue in the TV series Not Going Out.

Difficulty telling who is talking. This is easy to address when there are just two characters; if their voices are distinct enough, no attribution (he said, she said) is needed, but when there are multiple voices, simple attribution is helpful, even essential. It can be done without interrupting the flow of reading and without getting too fancy, such as using, ‘she postulated’, ‘he blustered’. Even ‘he asked’ is not needed when it’s clear that the character has asked – a question mark within the speech marks will tell the reader.

In 10 Rules of Writing (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010), Elmore Leonard says:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asservated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Too much exposition through dialogue. E.g. ‘Oh, there goes Anita. She was born in 1965 to Indian migrant parents and has married a drinker.’ A bit of an extreme example of ‘the writer sticking his nose in’, but I have seen such stuff in the few pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that I read. But then Dan Brown’s a very rich and successful writer, so who am I to speak?

Another quote from Elmore Leonard

…a character in the book [John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday] makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what that guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

Here are some tips on writing dialogue, from a workshop that I ran for Save As Writers in 2012.

Eavesdropping

Listen to the patterns of everyday speech, write down conversations you overhear.

Rewrite these conversations taking out some of the Ums, Ahs, Wells etc. Get to the heart of what’s being said, cut what is not needed. Not everything you overheard belongs in the scene.

Intersperse with body language and action. It’s hard to listen, write and watch when you’re eavesdropping – add your own; you don’t have to be faithful to the scene you witnessed.

Play with attribution – ‘said’ usually suffices, but try writing without any attribution, making it clear who is speaking.

Read the dialogue you have written out loud – does it sound like ordinary speech?

Writing Conflict

A scene with dialogue is a great way to portray conflict and particularly crisis scenes. You can intersperse dialogue with action and summarise in indirect speech. Many of us have difficulties in writing about conflict.

Try writing these scenes using dialogue:

A mother is preparing her young daughter for school. The child wants to go on a school trip; the mother does not have the money to pay for it.

You have come to collect your car from the garage. The mechanic tells you that much more needs to be done than you think necessary.

At a family funeral, two brothers meet that have not spoken in ten years after a disagreement over a loan that remains unpaid. Their sister attempts to get them to speak again.

There are plenty of examples of good and bad dialogue on the internet; even more can be found in your own reading. You will spot it. The problem with being a writer is that you can’t read without noticing the way a book, a story, is written. It’s when you don’t notice the writing, just get lost in the story, that you know the writer has done his or her work well. They may well have put in scaffolding during the writing process, but if they have taken that scaffolding down, the reader will not know that any artifice is involved.

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