Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Making Your Characters Say the Right Things: Tips on Writing Effective Dialogue

Dr. Anastasia Trekles
You may have heard lots of advice on the subject of dialogue-writing. Indeed, you may have sought out all of that advice because it’s just so darn tricky sometimes to capture your characters’ voices in text. After all, it’s tough to capture the subtleties of language through the written word alone, so as writers, we often compensate by throwing in little tidbits to help the reader see the nuances of tone, inflection, and diction along with the words the characters say. There are lots of ways to do this well, and some ways to . . . well, overdo it. Let’s look at three basic tips you might try to practice.
1.      We don’t always speak grammatically.
Have you ever noticed the way people actually talk to each other? Our sentences run on and on, and sometimes they simply don’t end at all. We string phrases together in odd ways, and unless you’re the Queen Mum, you have probably thrown in some outright grammatically incorrect colloquialisms when talking to your friends from time to time. This is normal in today’s American English-speaking, Facebook-using, 140-character Tweeting society (and it holds true in lots of other languages, too).
However, many times when we write, we feel we must adhere to standard grammatical conventions, even in dialogue. This isn’t wrong, of course, but, your characters definitely don’t need to sound like the Queen Mum, and in fact, you can build a lot of characterization into the way they speak.
Consider these two lines:
·         “I’m going to the store. I need to get out of here for a while.”
·         “I’m going to the store . . . got to get out of this place.”
They both convey the same essential idea. But the second item arguably has more punch just based on word choice and the use of ellipsis to hold the phrases together. Often in writing dialogue, an ellipsis can emphasize speech that is trailing off, indicating the person may be “daydreaming,” feeling out of sorts, sad, or searching for the right words in a difficult situation. Other helpful punctuation you might not use that often includes the em-dash and the semicolon, such as:
·         They didn’t state the reason – at least, not to me.”
·         “I miss my kids so much; they were my whole life.”
Note that while these tools are available, don't feel like you have to use them all the time. Too many dashes, ellipses, and semicolons can make for a difficult read.
2.      You don’t always have to announce the speaker.
As mentioned in last week’s blog post, dialogue tags aren’t always necessary. Many writers feel obliged to ensure we know who is speaking, each time they say something, but typically, as long as we have context, you don’t have to tell the reader over and over again. For example, when you have only two speakers in an exchange, once the order of their speaking is established, there’s no point in continuing to say that he said this and she said that. Instead, you can get straight to it, and the reader is unlikely to be confused.
            David and Martha looked at each other as David put Martha’s hand in his.
            “Look, I’m really sorry,” he told her, trying hard to maintain eye contact.
            “Well, you really hurt my feelings. Why would you do that?”
            “I just . . .  I wasn’t thinking. Can you forgive me?”
            “I don’t know – let me think about it for a while.” She snagged her hand back and rested it into her lap.
Note the avoidance of adverbs in this exchange as well. Sometimes we use them to help emphasize how a speaker says something (i.e., “he said passionately”). This is all well and good but again, there is such a thing as too much.
3.      Pay attention to diction – but don’t go off the deep end.
Word choice, slang usage, and dialect can help place your characters within a historical or geographic context. However, a character’s use of diction doesn’t have to be relegated to whether he or she says “ain’t” or “isn’t,” and in fact, you can make a character’s voice very difficult (or even offensive) to read if you try too hard. Something as simple as using shorter sentences or simpler vocabulary for a more direct, rude, or less educated speaker might be just as effective as trying to convey an accent or heap on the slang.
Consider To Kill a Mockingbird. American Southern diction is found in much of the dialogue, such as this early statement from Jem:
"Shoot no wonder, then," said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. "Scout yonder's been readin' ever since she was born, and she ain't even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin' on seven."
For those of us not used to this speaking style, it can be difficult to fully understand in one read. On the other hand, we also get an instant and vibrant picture of young Jem based on his words alone. You don’t even have to have read the book to get something more than just what was said from that one line of dialogue. So, in this case, Harper Lee’s use of diction is very effective. Yours can be, too; just be mindful that your word choice is not so alien to the reader that they need a slang dictionary to understand your work.
There are many other ways to refine your dialogue, of course, and there is no perfect science to it. As long as the moods and personalities of your characters shine through when they speak, you can play with language and structure as much as you like. Practice. Have fun with it. In fact, the best advice that anyone ever gave me was very simple: read it out loud to yourself. If you can hear your characters leaping out of the page, and they don’t sound like they’re in a bad B-movie, then you’re on the right track.
Dr. Anastasia Trekles is a clinical professor of education and English at Purdue University Northwest. Somewhere amongst the various academic works she has published, she also has a few works of fiction available, including her recently released novel, Core, available at

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