Rhythm of the Words

“It rose up before me like an angry giant threatening to bring down a bloody fist upon my head. The ribbing of its legs ready to stomp at-” . “Wait, you’re talking about the tree? Still?” . “Yes Tara, I’m telling you about the tree. A stompy giant tree. Alright yes, the tree.”

I love dialogue. Even when it’s full of lies, there’s something pure about it. The words on the page are what are said, unalterably what the reader sees. When you describe a scene, or action, everyone comes to it with their own imagination. They might imagine a character’s voice differently to what I had when I wrote it or even take a different meaning from them, but there’s no other interpretation to what’s written when the page has a character say “I heard you was dead.”

Some of that comes from my machinima days. Despite the stubbornness of nostalgia, I can’t see myself making another film again. That realisation is depressing, but I’ve reached a point where my ‘cinematic vision’ requires content that’s beyond me. I have a huge attachment to it, because it’s the thing that put my writing back on the forefront. I didn’t spare any cycles for description, thought up what I think characters should look or sound like, and just wrote the script. Actions were brief, and characterisation came through dialogue alone.

I was blessed to have decent actors in that community. Some were just extraordinarily gifted, their voice adding depth to some characters (e.g., Sheriff Waylon Carver) that’ve made them stand out as ones I must revisit in the future. In other cases, I like to believe it’s the dialogue I wrote that made them sing. I don’t think dialogue is necessarily easy, but I’ve found that the amount of time I spent writing different characters has made it easier as time went on. Escaping your own inflections, idioms and style is difficult. For the rest of your writing, I think those are things you need to embrace, but when it comes to writing great characters, you need each to have a voice of their own.

You can’t do it entirely. You can’t write completely unlike yourself, because every character from the lonely bootmaker to the cheesy uncle, to the tattooed florist owes something of their character to you. You give them the voice, and they have their own parts, but it’s still you on some level. How to do it, then? How to stop your characters being utterly replaceable by each other, to the point where Jane could be Susan could be Anastasia could be Morgan and it would all still fit?

Diction helps, but if you’re writing about characters from a fairly homogenised background, that won’t be enough. Character quirks help, but the focus here is dialogue. The best way that I’ve found (and I’m going with the idea that ALL of my characters aren’t just me in fancy dress), is to give the characters a different rhythm. I imagine the words coming up from their chest, and either lazing about until they just spill out of their mouths in a slow trickle, or gush out intermittently. There’s some that are talkers, that continue to gab about details until they’re clearly just belabouring their points or perhaps not even addressing them, to where you’re no longer sure if they had one. Others frugal, direct. What they say is an important part of a scene, but often what they don’t is bigger.

The other important thing is to make your dialogue flow. A plethora of syllables doesn’t make one seem educated (though goes a long way to making one sound pompous), and those contractions and ‘alternate’ spellings intended to give the impression of an accent can really hamper the readability – so preferences aside, try to be decipherable! All of that (and the advice) can be discarded if you have a reason for it (I dun wanna! doesn’t count), but make it a conscious decision.

One thought on “Rhythm of the Words

  1. Nice reflection on an important subject in writing. I set out to write a story about a month ago and it has evolved into a trilogy of short stories that is about 90% dialogue (but with a lot of action depicted and dictated by the words). I’m hoping to adapt them into a 3-act play and possibly one day even a screenplay.

    Reading your post helped me think about the words each of my characters speak. It was helpful for me to consider how I might further give each his/her voice.


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