For a part of my writing that I’ve always put a lot of stock in, the absence of posts on dialogue rings peculiar. As it’s been so long since the last time I wrote about it, I feel a bit less wary about treading the same ground. The way we express ourselves, that special inner voice we all have when we’re not trying to be literary or profound, that’s a big part of it – yet that’s a matter of expression, and isn’t the same thing.
Words have their own power, but whatever descriptions or events you write, there’s a subtext at play. If a character swipes a loaf of bread, you might describe the event, or the manner in which it happens, or the smell of the freshly baked loaf as it breaks into two.
From there the reader has the projector – they take your descriptions and words and make them real, but through their own imagined versions. The exception is always in the dialogue. While the motivations can change or the nuances may vary, what you write as said by a character is precisely what they say. There’s no variance.
Well, maybe some.
Characterisation plays a major part of how a character’s dialogue comes across, and as it’s difficult to describe tone without sinking to ridiculous levels of verbosity, it’s a combination of diction and cadence that sets the baseline for how the words come across. Non-verbal signals influence the same, but also the grunts and coughs and pauses that frame the words, which in turn reinforces the character’s personality. We’ve all heard the show-don’t-tell maxim, yet it’s not merely about explaining what is happening – it’s also to show what’s normal.
A character may have a way of speaking that in one case leads to anger, and either withdrawal or lashing out. The next time the reader sees the character speak that way, reverting to cold, abrupt dagger-words? The risks of an altercation rise, and whoah there, we have some drama happening.
The personalities of characters develop over time. This is something set apart from character growth or character development, but more a truth of the writing process. You don’t know the characters nearly as well as you believe you might when you begin, but as the precise choices are made and their thoughts culminate into phrases and sentences, you learn who they are. Even those peeks into their thoughts are not always conveyed with the exact words they’d use, but a semblance of their intentions.
He thought about last Christmas, and how the dreaded Hayward cousins embarrassed him.
We get the intent, but not his words. Only what’s spoken is his.
She stared at the entrance, breaking contact with the door only for glances at the clock, which seemed to be stealing hours for every minute her date didn’t show.
We can imagine how she feels and guess at what she’s thinking, but it’s a projection that we relate to through our own empathy and experience. We don’t know her.
It’s what these characters say that is unequivocal. Yes, the meaning might vary, but the words are the words exactly.
On the off-chance you already knew all this (and some reading would have), there is a next stage or level – you need to strengthen the dialogue you have, or learn to separate the characters from each other so that they don’t sound alike. It’s conceivable we can take a line of dialogue from one character and give it to another. Sometimes it will fit. Other times it won’t. The same line may even taste different on each character’s tongue, whether “I’m going to help you” is spoken by a smooth-talking conman, a retired heroine, or a boisterous school kid.
Personally, I method-write a lot. I try and jump into my character’s head, think about the intent, then roll the words around until they start to feel right. Saying them out loud helps (especially vital for natural-sounding dialogue), but so does changing my posture and mannerisms to slip into the foolhardy knight-errant who isn’t all that sure of herself but doesn’t want others to see it.
Being well-read helps, because everything you read has come from the mind of someone else. Multiple someones in cases.
Another one is listening. Listen a lot. Don’t try and transcribe real conversations because they’re so laden with hesitations and half-spoken syllables, but listen to the cadence – the rhythm – the melodic pattern that can transform the recitation of a menu into a near-lyrical poem.
The most vital piece though is to separate yourself from… yourself. Write the dialogue as it comes to you, then try it out. Sometimes it’ll be too much like you, and with a whole cast of you, you may have to jump to the wording that isn’t automatic. I’m not saying go all-in with the thesaurus – in fact I’m telling you DO NOT DO THAT – but consider alternatives, pick something else, think about options, mull over the possibilities, run through what could be, and yes, I’m purposely repeating myself right there.
Oh and for the love of sanity, don’t write accents. It wears thin fast. Without exception.