Even if I did nothing but write about dialogue for the next year’s worth of blog posts, I don’t think I could begin to cover everything I want to say about it. I’ve seen whole books written on the subject, and classes of students driven half way to insanity over the never ending discussion on what makes dialogue believable, engaging and useful to your story. But in any case, I’ll try to boil this down and just give you a couple of things to think about, then perhaps I can come back to this in a later week.
Accents, Dialects and Mannerisms
Everyone has mannerisms; little catchphrases or habits in their speech which make their voice instantly recognisable. And using these sorts of patterns to give a sense of individuality to your character’s dialogue can be a great way to distinguish them in that sea of quotation marks. It could be as simple as whether or not they contract words (don’t vs do not, I’ll vs I will), or something more complex like the occasional use of a regional slang. But how far can we take this before it starts to get overwhelming?
Way back during my GCSE poetry classes (the thought of them still makes me shudder), I remember my teacher handing around a piece that was written phonetically in the strongest possible Scottish accent. The only way to even get the jist of it was to read it aloud and even then, you just sounded like you were doing a bad impression. For me, this was too much. I like the idea of writing a character with an accent which is recognisable in the text, but my opinion is that it’s enough to use the occasional modified word or regional slang as a way of hinting what your character sounds like, and allow your readers to hear the rest of that accent in their minds as they read the dialogue. As for that poem, I don’t even remember what it was about; all I can remember was how difficult it was to read and that isn’t an impression I would want to leave on my own readers.
I mentioned something similar to this before in my article on Three Supporting Characters that are Ruining your Novel, but have you ever noticed a character in a story who exists just to ask the protagonist pertinent questions? They are the fawning side-character who seem to have no personality in their own right, but exist just to move the plot forwards, and to give the main character the opportunity to say something cool.
If any of your characters do nothing but ask questions, you probably need to think about whether they have any place in your story, but I would go one step further than that and suggest that you need to be a little cautious when any of your characters ask a question.
Next time you get the opportunity to eavesdrop, have a listen to a couple of people having a casual conversation and you will notice that, although questions do get asked, they are actually fairly uncommon. The frequency varies depending on the type of conversation. For example, two people who don’t know each other very well may ask a lot of questions out of politeness. People who are close friends having a very engaged conversation usually won’t ask many questions at all, as their statements spark a response. And everything in between. Books could be written on the topic of questions in conversation but if you aren’t interested in academic pragmatics, it’s probably research enough to just observe the conversations you hear around you and listen for the frequency and types of questions which are asked. When your dialogue becomes a question and answer session, there will be something very robotic and unnatural about it. Unless you’re writing an interview, of course!
There’s plenty more to be said on dialogue but I’ll leave it there for now. If you enjoyed this article, please click like and follow, and look out for my upcoming post, where I’ll be doing a little more Novel Writing 101.