To wrap up this month’s discussion on how to write good dialogue I want to talk a little bit more about how to give your characters individual voices. Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that “you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.” That is what you are trying to do with your dialogue. Rarely do two people sound alike, and I don’t just mean in an auditory sense, in that their voices sound alike. I am, of course, referring to more than that, I mean their word choices, speech patterns and natural vocal rhythms.
I had the audacity last week to suggest that phonetically spelled dialogue was the by-product of a writer cutting corners. That’s a pretty harsh statement but I’m going to stand by it. Because the thing is this: writing phonetic dialogue is just the surface layer.
Are You Listening To Our Conversation?
Remember when I said that every writer eavesdrops? They listen to people talk at parties, at work, at coffee shops, on their cellphones, on the street. If there are people speaking, you can bet a writer is listening—they may also be silently judging the speaker but that’s neither here nor there.
Phonetic dialogue is the product of a well trained ear transcribing the sounds that the writer has heard, clipping and truncating words to visually represent the rhythm of someone’s speech. This method of writing dialogue may be effective in small doses, but I think it fails at carrying a character’s voice through an entire novel. Why? Because the way people talk, our voices, and your characters’s dialogue are more than just sounds and regional accents.
Mark Twain Wrote Dialogue Like That, It Must Work
The #1 thing phonetically spelled dialogue has going for it is immediacy. The second you read, “I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely,” you know you are reading the words of someone who is different, who is other. Phonetically spelled dialogue slaps you in the face, the words yell at you that this is DIFFERENT, did you notice it was DIFFERENT, have you caught on to the DIFFERENTNESS YET? That immediacy is not intrinsically bad, however, for a reader it’s exhausting.
- How many readers want to spend 400 pages of your novel being punched in the face?
But Lia, My Character Isn’t American!
Literature would be pretty boring if every character was American and spoke like me—I’m from the Pacific Northwest, we’re generally considered one of the blandest North American accents. So, the question is how do you write good dialogue so that a character’s accent, dialect, culture and nationality is transmitted to the reader naturally, without literary violence?
The answer is WORDS.
- Look at your word choices. An American might say “cellphone” or “garbage can” but someone from England is going to use words like “mobile” or “bin” instead. People in other countries use different words for things, so your characters should as well.
- Know your colloquialisms. People use slang, and slang changes depending on where you are.
- “I’m shinnicked with cold,” he shouted, blowing on his chapped hands, backing his great rear up to the gas heater.”I love this line from The Shipping News which uses “shinnick” to describe how cold the character feels—consequently I have a bunch of family from Ireland named Shinnick, and here it is showing up in a Newfoundland dialect.
- People say things wrong. Maybe it’s a cliché to say English is a difficult language to learn but it’s a cliché because it’s true. I’ve worked enough in online copywriting to know that even people who are ostensibly “native English speakers” still struggle to put words together correctly. If your character doesn’t speak English as their first language or if they speak more than one language they are going to make vocabulary and syntactical mistakes.
- Word to the wise, use syntactical mistakes judiciously. Just like phonetic spelling and overusing italics, too much broken dialogue can alienate readers as well.
- Research your references. Have you given your characters backstory? Even if the specifics don’t all make it to the screen—and let’s be honest, they shouldn’t, backstory being one of your most important off the page writing tools—every character came from somewhere, had different life experiences, and this will influence their dialogue, both in how they same something and what they say.
I write about my characters getting coffee, talking about coffee and asking other characters if they want coffee. This is because my characters are often either from or living in Seattle and coffee culture is just that—the culture. It is In Character for my characters to discuss coffee, so that’s what they do, because it is their frame of reference.
- What are your character’s individual frames of reference?
- How does their backstory influence their dialogue? Think beyond how their dialogue sounds to the words and expressions the character would use.
Writing good dialogue takes practice. Read your dialogue out loud, re-write it, talk to yourself. It isn’t crazy if it’s in your pursuit to write a better novel.