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How to revise your dialogue

This is part 2 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising dialogue. The goal with dialogue, aside from advancing the plot, should be to show your characters’ inner selves through how they speak.

Great dialog is distinctive; each character sounds only like himself and no other. The rule of thumb is that when the reader can tell immediately who said a line of dialogue without looking at the surrounding narrative, you’ve done your job.

Great dialogue is also consistent; characters should end the book still sounding like they did in the beginning. The caveat here, of course, is that elements of the character arc and plot may well influence how the character speaks. For example, you might have a character who undergoes a character arc in which he stops being so much of an insensitive jerk, which you show by changing the way he speaks. Or you may have a plot point in which the character suffers a stroke with partial paralysis, and physically cannot speak the same as before. But barring those types of effects, great dialogue is consistent.

So how do you do it?

Make lists

Start by realizing that having finished the manuscript, you now know each character much better than you did at the beginning of the book. Much as you may have wanted to make each character sound distinctive from the beginning, you may simply not have known them well enough to do so. But now you do.

Start by making a list of each character in the book—the major ones and the minor ones too. While you should spend more energy making sure your major characters’ dialogue is flawless, dialogue is about the only opportunity that minor characters have to pop off the page as real people. Then for each character, write down some descriptions of how that character speaks. List their verbal tics. Flip through the manuscript, looking for lines of their dialogue to remind yourself of the details of each character’s voice, and summarize it all.

Revise the lists

Now take a look across these lists. Look for similarities between characters, or characters where you didn’t know what to write besides “speaks normally.” Similarities indicate places where you may want to change one or the other character to make them more distinctive.

For example, you might notice that all your characters use “really” quite often as an intensifier. You could change one character to use “very” instead, and change another character not to do that at all. That character might resort to more round-about ways of emphasizing his or her points, such as by saying “I’m quite sure that...” instead.

Conversely, characters whose lists indicate a generic voice are opportunities to create verbal tics specifically for the purpose of making the characters come alive. If the character comes from a place with a distinctive accent or dialect, make use of that. You might even change the character’s background to provide that opportunity. Or you might think about people you know who talk in distinctive ways and make the character emulate them.

Work the lists over until you’re satisfied that each character’s list is sufficiently distinctive from the others. Make use of the techniques I gave in this earlier article to make sure each character’s list of verbal tics also fits his or her personality. Yes, the list should be distinctive from the others, but the items on it should also help you show the character traits you’ll want to show.

Flag the manuscript or make a spreadsheet

The idea here is to find a way to work on your characters one at a time, rather than trying to fix each character’s dialogue simultaneously. I mean, you could just go through the manuscript line by line, fixing each bit of dialogue as you encounter it. But it’s difficult to keep a firm grip on all your character’s speech patterns at the same time, and since the whole point of revising is to increase the overall quality, I’m going to give you two methods for revising each character in isolation.

The first method, and often the most practical, is to use peel-off flags and highlighters. Start by printing out the manuscript. The whole thing. You might even do it double-spaced to give yourself room to revise on the page. Then read through it, using highlighters to mark each character’s dialogue with a different color. Don’t worry about changing anything, just mark everything. Similarly, use those little colored tape flag thingies to mark the beginnings of scenes where each character occurs.

Your manuscript will end up looking like a paint store exploded all over it. That’s ok, because now you’ll be able to easily scan through the manuscript, looking for colors rather than reading the words, to locate each character’s dialogue. Oh, and one other tip: you may be tempted to use those new colored sharpie markers to highlight with. Don’t. They stink, and once it soaks into the paper, that sharpie smell doesn’t go away. You’d think it would, but it doesn’t. Stick with the old-fashioned wide-tip highlighters. Your nose will thank you.

The second method, if you’re the techie type, is to make a spreadsheet. Literally extract every line of dialogue onto separate worksheets, one for each character. You may also want to track the chapter number and/or page number, to make putting everything back easier. This is a ton of cut-and-paste work, but it does offer the benefit of allowing you to see all of a character’s dialogue together without anything else getting in the way. It will make revising the dialogue later much faster, and give you more consistent results. If you can stand the work involved, I’d recommend it.

Revise the manuscript

Now you’re ready to revise. Pick a character. Re-read that character’s list of dialogue attributes you made earlier. Get it firmly in your head, and once you’re ready to channel that character’s soul out onto the page, begin.

If you went with the highlighter method, start flipping through the pages. Don’t read, just let your eyes glaze over watching for green spots or whatever the character’s color is. When you find one, read the line and see if it fits the list. If not, revise on the page or in your work processor, whichever you prefer. I find it easier to revise on the page, rather than having to flip back and forth between paper and screen to do the edits. I save those all for one final pass after I’ve fixed everything.

If you went with the spreadsheet commando method, here’s where you get to feel smug and superior to everyone else. Hit each character’s worksheet, look for lines that don’t fit, and fix them. You’re in the enviable position of being easily able to glance at lines from the beginning and end of the manuscript, looking for shifts in tone that don’t belong. You can even track which lines you have changed and which you haven’t, to minimize what comes next: Re-copy the new lines back into the manuscript.


However you do it, keep those two goals in mind: distinctiveness and consistency. Remember, too, that these same techniques work equally well for inner monologue, which is the direct presentation of a character’s thoughts to the reader. It’s almost like the character speaking to the reader, but without explicitly breaking that “fourth wall.” Use these techniques to make your inner monologue every bit as distinctive and consistent as your outer dialogue.

Dialogue is a very powerful tool for showing character. It pays to get it right. Dialogue that really sparkles is a joy to write and a thrill to read. But wooden dialogue that clanks like tin in the ear only shows the reader that your characters weren’t real enough to you. In which case, why should they be to the reader?

< Back to part 1 | Next: part 3, mannerisms >

December 03, 2009 21:08 UTC

Tags: character, revision, dialogue, distinctive, consistent, highlighter, spreadsheet

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Don't forget to revise your characters too

To everyone who completed NaNoWriMo, and to everyone who has finished a manuscript in any timeframe, congratulations!

Now begins revision, strengthening the parts of your book you weren’t happy with when you wrote them, or that readers have told you don’t work very well. But as you revise your story’s weak plot points, as you iron out geographic inconsistencies in street names, historical details of clothing and social customs, don’t forget to revise your characters, too.

Plots are important, sure, but the heart of any story is its characters. They deserve to be every bit as polished and well-crafted as your plot. There are plenty of great writing blogs with advice on fixing plot issues, building tension, raising the stakes, and all of that. I won’t cover any of that.

Instead, this article is the first in series on techniques for strengthening your characters during revision. Over the next several days, I’ll cover these areas where revision can greatly improve your characters:


I’ve said it before on this blog, but dialogue is a marvelously powerful tool for exhibiting your characters’ inner workings to the reader. But with that power comes danger: get the dialogue wrong, and the characters fall flat. In revision, your goal is to create consistent, distinctive voices for each character. Each character should be immediately recognizable through the way they speak. What they say and how they say it should reveal a lot about them. Click here to read how to revise your dialogue


I touched on these a little bit in an earlier article about habits. Much as with dialogue, mannerisms are also wonderful windows into your characters’ souls. In revision, your goal is to display consistent patterns of mannerisms, but also to find ways to use those behaviors to display your characters’ mental states. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ mannerisms

Physical attributes

This isn’t an area I have covered in much depth on this blog—not yet, anyway—except possibly for this article about stealing a character’s shoes. I apologize for that; it would be helpful to have some good background reading to point you at before talking about revision techniques, but it’ll have to wait. Suffice it to say that a character’s mind and body come in a single package, and I’ll be talking about ways to link physical traits to the attitudes you need the character to have as well as to the personal growth they may undergo. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ physical attributes


Attitudes—our complete sets of opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and values—govern how we interact with others and guide the choices we make in any given situation. The same is true for your characters. In this installment, I’ll be covering ways to ensure that your characters’ attitudes are as complex as a real person’s (not cardboard-cutout characters), as well as strategies for using the attitudes of individual characters and your whole cast to enhance the drama in your story. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ attitudes

Personal growth

Last of all is the big one: character arc. Mainstream thrillers can, and often do, get away with plots in which the protagonists don’t learn and grow at all over the course of the book. They leave the final chapter no wiser about life or about themselves than they were on page one. That’s an enormous missed opportunity to elevate a book from merely entertaining to moving and meaningful. You may still elect to have a laser-straight character arc in your book, but I at least aim to give you some tools you can use to put some juicy bends in that arc. Click here to read how to revise your character arcs


Don’t think of these as four discrete items to add to your must-fix-in-editing list. They don’t work in pure isolation from each other. Physical attributes, for example, can have a bearing on a character’s mannerisms and attitudes. Rather, treat these areas and the techniques I’ll be covering as a mental framework for evaluating your characters, for teaching yourself how to see what needs to be fixed. Expect to go back and forth with them, moving from one area to another as you see opportunities where they can build on one another.

I hope you’ll stay tuned to the rest of this series, in which I’ll give you practical, in-depth and hands-on tips for addressing those four areas. If you apply them diligently, then when you are done revising you will have characters who are every bit the equal of your plot.

Next: Part 2, how to revise your dialogue >

December 02, 2009 19:14 UTC

Tags: character, revision, dialogue, mannerisms, attitude, physical attributes, character arc

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How to show character through dialogue

A long time ago, I wrote a pair of articles about dialogue: one about the importance of realistic dialogue, and one with techniques for creating distinctive dialogue. This, then, is part three: techniques for revealing details about your character through dialogue.

Dialogue is all about nuance. After all, there are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to say, but each one carries its own flavor. Showing character through dialogue is all about being sensitive to the nuances of these different flavors, and picking the one that best matches the traits of the character saying the line.

Consider, just for example, the difference between “Would you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?” and “I’d like a ham sandwich,” and even “fix me a ham sandwich.”

Attitude towards others

Speaking of ham sandwiches, that example shows clearly some differences in attitude towards others. Respect versus disrespect. The part to clue in on is the grammatical nature of the sentence. The question is the most respectful. It gives the listener the opportunity, at least on the surface, to say no. It expresses the speaker’s wishes without being too pushy about it. The simple declarative sentence is pretty neutral. Context would indicate whether it’s a request or just a wish. The imperative sentence, a literal command, is the least respectful as it leaves no linguistic room for the listener to say no. It attempts to impose the speaker’s will on the listener.

When attempting to convey nuances of respect or disrespect, look to questions, statements, and commands as your tools. And remember, respect and disrespect factor into all sorts of personality traits. For example, simple arrogance—a character who always feels he knows better than everyone else—can manifest as a tendency towards issuing commands rather than stating his opinions declaratively. He would say “You don’t want to do that,” rather than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus declaration.

This is also a useful tool for underscoring relationships between characters where there is a difference in social power. For example, an employee/boss relationship, a soldier/commander relationship, et cetera. The person in the higher position of power can get away with using the less respectful forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the more respectful forms. And if you have a character intentionally break the pattern, watch the sparks fly: Employees and soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and those of higher rank.


Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not respect-to-disrespect, but rather, calmness-to-agitation. And the tool for revealing it is grammatical correctness.

A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in sentences that are more complete and more correct than one who is agitated. When a character totally freaks out, it’s natural for them to stutter and splutter, speak in sentence fragments, re-start sentences or switch to a new sentence half-way through the old one, and generally exhibit all manner of verbal tics.

This is not to say that a calm character should always speak in flawless King’s English. No. Of course real people speak in ways that are very different than written English, even when they’re calm. But the more agitated someone is, the farther they tend to stray from the strict rules of grammar.


Another core character trait that dialogue excels at showing is the scale from introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for doing this is simple word count: Expansiveness versus brevity.

Shy people don’t tend to talk as much. When they do, they choose their words carefully. Outgoing people tend to talk more. They’re more likely to gab, to expand on a thought with tangents and side-thoughts, and so forth.

Let’s say a patron walks into a library and asks where to find a book on Detroit muscle cars of the 1950s. One librarian says “Those are in the 629s,” and points you towards a particular shelf. Another librarian, given the same question, says “Oh, yes! All the stuff about cars is in the 629s. Here, let me show you.” She comes out from behind her desk to lead you to the right shelf.

One is all business, she says the minimum necessary to end the conversation. The other is happy and personable, and attempts to make a connection with the patron. Nobody expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a weekend bar-b-que or anything, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to make a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.

Going further

Those are just three character attributes you can play with. But you can take this technique much further. Most personality traits have an opposite. That is, there’s a spectrum for that attribute, just as with the three I’ve covered here. Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel. There’s always an opposite, which means there’s a spectrum.

Take that ham sandwich line—or the particular line you’re struggling with—and ask yourself how someone from each end of the spectrum would say the line. For example, the greedy person would say “where’s my ham sandwich,” the use of possessive grammar indicating a focus on what belongs to him. The generous person might not ask at all, but might instead suggest a trade, “Boy, I’d give you the keys to my car for a ham sandwich right about now.”

Those are extremes, but considering the extremes can be very instructive. Once you have a handle on the spectrum you’re working with, you’ll have a better sense for where to pitch your specific character’s line of dialogue.

November 20, 2009 21:05 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, attitude, respect, mood, personality, introverted, extroverted

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NaNoWriMo diary part 3: writing is work

I’ve reached the nominal half-way point of NaNoWriMo, twenty-five thousand words. Part of the brilliance of NaNoWriMo is establishing these milestones, because honestly, it does feel good to reach them.

Sometimes, though, I just wish they didn’t come up so fast. It seems like one hardly has time to savor twenty-thousand before, next thing you know, you’re supposed to have reached 30. Which, for anyone who is keeping score, should be tomorrow.

Writing is work

There’s no doubt about that. If you’re at all serious about this whole noveling thing, you have to work at it. A blogger friend of mine wrote a guest post aptly titled The Myth of Being in the Zone. There’s a lot of truth to what she says. Sometimes writing is an exhilarating, joyous burst of creative freedom.

But most of the time it’s work.

For me, the zeal of starting a new project usually lasts to about 10,000 words. After that, the work sets in. Which is not to say that it isn’t still enjoyable. But it’s a whole different experience to glance down at your word count after an arduous hour of work to see that you’ve managed to eke out 300 words, than it is when you’re “in the zone” and that same hour nets you 1,500.

This is also about when the procrastination kicks in. You’ll notice that I’m blogging at the moment instead of working on my novel. I’m a little blocked at the moment, in the middle of a scene that I’m not quite sure how to progress from point A to point B.

I could jump into it and grind it out, but I’ve found that usually it’s just better if I let these things sit for a while. If I come back to it fresh, the solution usually presents itself. Stressing out over OMG Must Advance Word Count! rarely helps. But, your mileage may vary.

Pacing is work

In my last NaNoWriMo diary, I was fretting over how much exposition I had to get through to uncover the story’s core mystery. I’ve done that, but I’ve been surprised to discover how scary that can be. I don’t recall having felt this way on prior novels, but I have here. I’ve spent all this time creating various mysteries, and resolving them is just a little bit frightening. I worry that what follows this first round of mysteries won’t hold the reader’s interest as well.

Of course I have the opposite concern, too: for 25,000 words, now, I’ve been piling and piling the mysteries on top of one another. At times I’ve felt like it’s too much. That I need to throw the reader some kind of bones, let them come to the answers to something, before they get frustrated with me.

Pacing is all about walking the right line between those competing fears, and honestly, I think it’s one of the harder facets of good novel writing to learn.

Showing character through dialogue

Quite some time ago, I wrote an article on how to un-clone your characters with distinctive dialogue. For Lapochka, much more than any other novel I’ve written, I’m finding myself using those techniques explicitly not just to make the characters distinct from one another, but to convey to the reader those characters’ personalities. I suspect the reason has to do with writing in the first-person POV, as opposed to my usual third-person limited POV.

We get plenty of Anna’s voice through the first-person narrative itself. She’s telling us the story in her own words. Her snarky sarcasm, her ironic sense of humor, her bleakly wry observations all have plenty of opportunities to show themselves. But the minor characters don’t get that. All they get are a few lines of dialogue here and there, so each one has to count.

I’ve got one supporting character named Steve who is basically a manipulative jerk. He likes to be in control. He likes it when other people are acting as pleases him. His dialogue reflects that with a lot of imperative-voice sentences. I don’t find him saying “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” which is ordinary active voice. Rather, he’ll say “No, you don’t want to do that.” Grammatically, it’s in the imperative voice. It’s a command. Colloquially, everyone understands that these are two different styles of presenting one’s opinions. But the difference in tone between the simple statement and the command is important. One is neutral, and respectful of the listener’s own opinions. The other is pushy and disrespectful, however much it’s disguised behind smiles and a cheerful tone of voice.

I have another character, Alex, who is a Russian Studies professor and himself a Russian expatriate. His speech reflects this through techniques of dialect, which I also addressed in that earlier article. I’ve known a few Russian speakers of English over the years, so it’s not too difficult to emulate their grammatical idiosyncrasies for Alex. The pleasant discovery with him has been that the broken-ness of his English also serves as a useful tool for convey his emotional state. When he’s calm and collected, his English is better. When he’s upset, it slips back towards native Russian patterns.

Ok. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got a word count to advance!

November 17, 2009 22:02 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, pacing, writing, imperative voice, Lapochka, NaNoWriMo

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Character Corner: "Return Policy" by Michael Snyder

First, let’s keep the FTC’s new blogger disclosure monitor people happy: I got a free copy of Return Policy from a book giveaway on K.M. Weiland’s blog. Neither of these fine folks expected me to review it at all. (But note, you can find them as “@snydermanwrites” and “@KMWeiland” on Twitter.)

Ok. I finished reading Return Policy a couple of weeks ago. It was a solid midlist novel. Entertaining. Very funny in spots, very moving and compelling in others, but here and there I felt the plot was weak. At a couple of critical spots, characters both major and minor fail to do obvious things that, had they done them, would have avoided a lot of trouble that Snyder obviously wanted create for his poor characters. Snyder may be an author to watch, but this isn’t likely to be his breakout book. I give it three stars.

On to the characters. Snyder has three principal characters in this book, and each one is told from the first person POV. That’s a bold choice, because it demands a very high level of craft to keep the characters distinct. It’s the right choice for this book, because first person POV allows him to clearly convey each character’s different opinions and attitudes towards one another and their different interpretations of the book’s plot events. Much of the story’s nuance hinges on the types of miscommunications that can arise from people’s different opinions and interpretations, so going with first person was effective for that.

Snyder structured the book as a sequence of scenes that switch round-robin among the POV characters. But judging by the number of times I found myself confused in the middle of dialogue as to who was saying what, or having to backtrack to remember which character ‘owned’ the scene, I’d say Snyder has some work to do in making the characters distinctive in their details. Their broad strokes are clearly different, but down in the nitty-gritty of words on the page, at times I found them running together.


Wally Finneran is the book’s central character. He’s a divorced guy with a pretty bleak outlook on life, but given his backstory (which I won’t spoil) you can hardly blame him. One thing I found interesting about Wally is that he’s a writer. I know, cliche alert, right? How many times have we seen writers take “write what you know” a little too seriously and write about characters who are writers? But in this case Snyder makes it work because Wally is not exactly a fan of his own stuff. In fact, he thinks he’s crap, which ends up being pretty amusing. [Update: having recently re-read something I wrote 3 years, ago, I know exactly how Wally feels.]

My main problem with Wally is that overall, he’s too passive. Wally spends way too much of the book letting events push him around, before he finally grows a pair and exerts some sort of influence over his destiny. While his backstory makes this believable, I still ended up feeling sorry for him more than I actually rooted for him. To be fair, I think much of the point of the book was to force Wally not to be so passive. There’s nothing wrong with that as a character arc. This may be a matter of my own tastes as much as anything, it didn’t really grab me.


Shaq is a mentally ill dude who lives at a homeless shelter. For my money, Shaq was the most interesting character in the book, and he’s where Snyder really shines. Snyder did a great job of portraying Shaq’s particular variety of crazy-slash-incapacitated in a way that was both believable and at the same time didn’t reduce him to another pitiable wretch of a character. For all of Shaq’s problems and hardships, he left the man with his share of dignity.

But here’s the twist: Snyder also used Shaq’s mental problems to drive some of the book’s central and most compelling mysteries. And he did it really, really well. Read Return Policy for that if nothing else, and pay attention. It’s a marvelous example of using character flaws to drive mystery.


Ozena is a telephone service representative for an espresso machine company. She is in many ways the book’s emotional heart, its source of warmth and compassion. She is perhaps the character I empathized with the most, because Snyder did a very nice job conveying her mixture of unfailing love for her very high-maintenance, special needs son. I know how hard it is raising normal kids; they’re high maintenance enough. I can’t even imagine the toll that year after year of caring for her little Leroy Jr. would take, knowing that he’ll never grow up like other kids. But she loves him anyway, and Snyder’s portrayal of this whole package—the emotional and logistical complications of Ozena’s life—was very genuine and tender. I liked Ozena.


As I said, I got a free copy of the book, which probably biases me in some inevitable fashion towards it. But despite the book’s plot weaknesses, I wouldn’t have been sorry had I paid list price for it. In the end, it is a portrait of three people, each in their own ways coping with tragedy. Snyder does yeoman work in making three people’s very different reactions to tragedy all feel believable. I like books about characters (no surprise there), and this book has three good ones. If you’re like me in that regard, give it a try.

November 13, 2009 00:30 UTC

Tags: character corner, Michael Snyder, passivity, dialogue, distinctive

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How to amp-up your scenes with body language

I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago called Why Jane Smokes that showed some techniques for linking characters’ external actions to their internal growth across a whole story arc. Today’s article is a double-win technique for using body language to amp-up the characterization on a smaller scale, within individual scenes.

Whether they know it or not, everyone exhibits body language. And, much as with dialogue, you and everyone who will ever read your book is an expert in the art of interpreting body language. We all know what it means when someone shrugs, pumps a fist in the air, crosses their arms over their chest, or shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot.

This is just part of being human. We’re all students of each other, because we have to be. Body language gives us essential information about other people’s attitudes, states of mind, and even how they are reacting to us in any given moment.

Tap into your readers’ expertise. Use body language both to advance your scenes and to portray your characters as believable, multi-dimensional people. There are two main ways adding body language helps a scene.

Moods First and foremost, body language is a wonderful tool showing characters’ moods. It is, frankly, an enormously useful writing tool for those situations where you have a vivid internal sense for a character’s particular, subtly nuanced feeling, but are having trouble giving a name to it. Stop looking for a name to give to it. Instead, convey the feeling through body language. Not only does that save you from the trouble of finding the perfect phrase, but it allows you to show instead of tell. Don’t give us this:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She sat at the dining room table, weary, worn out in body and spirit.

Give us this, instead:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She slumped over the table, cradling her head against the heels of her hands.

Setting The second useful aspect of body language is that it turns your characters physical bodies into an extension of the setting. Your scene takes place somewhere—be it a clandestine warehouse, a windy beach, a bedroom—but wherever it is, your characters bodies are there, too. They are an element of the setting. Just as you should look for key details of place—a greasy concrete floor in the warehouse, the salt-air tang of the wind blowing off the water, the 400 thread-count linen sheets on the king-sized bed—you should also look for details of body language to layer onto your characters.

In setting scenes, writers are encouraged to incorporate all five senses in order to make the place itself feel real. It’s good advice, but why stick with just five senses? Why not add the whole other realm of sensations—emotional ones—that body language conveys so effectively? Try it, and see how much more vivid your settings become.

September 14, 2009 23:51 UTC

Tags: character, body language, emotions, settings, dialogue, details, show don't tell, senses

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Un-Clone your characters with distinctive dialogue

In yesterday’s post, I wanted to cover everything about using dialogue effectively to show character, as well as warning of some of the pitfalls. Oh, naive blogger, ye! That’s a whole book, not a blog post, so I’m taking it in smaller bites. Today I’m covering some tips and tricks for creating distinctive dialogue for your characters.

Writing dialogue is hard for a lot of reasons. One, as I said yesterday, is that all readers are experts in dialogue. But another is that we are each so deeply steeped in our own patterns of speech that we have trouble thinking in different patterns of speech for the characters we create.

If we don’t work to avoid it, all of our characters end up sounding like us. And thus, they all sound like clones.

There are a lot of strategies for avoiding this bland fate, and you’ll have to experiment with what works for you.

Strategy #1: Imitate people you know.

Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and Caribbean English. America and the United Kingdom have many linguistically distinct regions within them, and I imagine the same is true for Australia and the rest. So think about people you know who didn’t grow up where you grew up, and try to imitate them.

If you have a character that comes from a place with a distinctive patois, you should take particular pains to learn enough so you can imitate it. Just think about the immediate difference between “Good morning,” “G’day, mate,” and “Good mawnin’, braddah.” Even an otherwise throw-away line of dialogue can be made to show character if it is distinctive.

Strategy #2: Create mannerisms

Most people have at least a few verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy once who sounded entirely normal to me, except he used “whenever” in places everyone else would simply use “when.” Myself, when I was about 12 years old, I developed this habit of inserting the word “basically” into nearly every sentence that came out of my mouth. Fortunately I got over it but you get the idea: for each of your characters, create some particular phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately understandable. And make sure to keep straight which characters have which particular tics.

Strategy #3: Formal vs. informal vs. slang

Some people are very formal in their speech. Some are more casual. Some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality you can draw from, and you should. Degrees of formality are excellent tools for showing a character’s level of education and social background. Yes, it’s stereotypical that upper-class people with more education tend to speak more formally, while lower-class people with little education speak in a streetwise vernacular. I know, we shouldn’t stereotype people, but then again the stereotype wouldn’t exist if it weren’t more or less true. Again, consider the immediate difference between “Would you be so kind as to get me a drink,” and “Yo, my man, grab me a beer!”

If you play it right, you can create some very distinctive characters by explicitly manipulating the character’s level of formality in different scenes. For example, if you have a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard to put himself through college and become an upper-middle class professional, this person may well use different speech patterns at work versus hanging out with his old pals on the weekend. It’s a great device for showing the character’s dilemma of trying to fit into two different worlds.

Ok, so how do I actually do that?

Obviously, it’s best if you can work out each character’s manner of speech before you write the novel. That way, you can get it right from the beginning. If you’re one of those writers who creates extensive character biographies beforehand, this is something you could easily incorporate into your pre-novel-writing preparation. Write some sample scenes for your characters so you can practice their voices.

But not everyone works that way. Some writers only come to know their characters in the process of writing the books, so what then? That’s fine, so long as you’re willing to accept that you’ll need to do an edit pass specifically to address these questions of distinctive voice. Just write the first draft, do your best as you go along, but don’t stress about it.

When you’ve finished the first draft, make a list for each character of the verbal patterns you have discovered for them. These could consist of notes like “sounds like my friend Elwyn,” or “says ‘very very’ instead of ‘really’ or ‘a lot’.” Stuff like that. Now compare your lists to make sure they aren’t too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have a good handle on each character’s voice, do an edit pass on the whole book and adjust every line of dialogue to fit with the speaker’s verbal patterns.

Finally, a word of caution:

There is a difference between how people sound when they talk, and the words they choose to say. The physical sound—how they shape their vowels, whether they roll their Rs—that’s accent. The patterns of words they use, that’s dialect. As an author, you have to learn to control both.

Dialect is straightforward, because it’s just words, but accent is harder. To represent accent on the silent page, you must often resort to intentional misspellings. When done well that can be very effective, but it is all too easy to take the business of accenting way too far, turning it into an ugly caricature that borders on a racist portrayal. Few things will turn a reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.

Also, it is just plain hard to invent accent-oriented misspellings that give the sound you’re after but are also easy for the reader to understand. Some writers have a flair for this, but most don’t. For this reason I encourage most of my clients to stick with word-pattern distinctions but shun the accents.

July 15, 2009 18:17 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, distinctive, clones, accent, dialect, imitation, mannerisms, verbal tics, formal, informal, slang, stereotypes

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Making or breaking your characters with dialogue

People have very keen ears for dialogue. They know what sounds right and what sounds strange without having to think about it. That only makes sense; all of us have spent countless thousands of hours both talking to and listening to other people.

You’ve probably seen that recent research finding 10,000 hours of practice at anything makes someone an expert. Do the math: You likely racked up 10,000 hours of listening, developing your ear for dialogue, by the time you were five years old.

No wonder so many writers say that writing good dialogue is one of the hardest parts of fiction: every single reader is an expert in the subject! If your protagonist is a boat builder or a bricklayer or a horse trainer, very few readers will have enough expertise in those fields to know whether you’ve portrayed those activities well. But the second your characters start talking to each other, every one of your readers will know immediately whether your dialogue works.

This is why dialogue is such a powerful tool for creating vivid, believable characters, and showing aspects of their personalities. It is also why a single bad line of dialogue can sabotage hundreds of pages worth of laborious character development.

Some examples are in order. Imagine that Steve and Dan have decided to take a year off between high school and college to go have adventures traveling in Europe. Near the end of their year abroad, they find themselves in Spain. Hard up for money and desperately seeking an alternative to what he perceives as a boring future back home, Steve enters an amateur bull-fighting competition. He does well, placing third and winning fifty Euros. However, the bull does well too, and Steve ends up with a few cracked ribs and a black eye. That evening, Steve spends his winnings on a hotel room and a few beers to share with his friend:

Steve tipped his head back, wincing, and drained the last of his cerveza. He took up a fresh one and held the cool bottle to his swollen eye. “What do you think, do I look like a bullfighter?”

“I think you look like shit, man.”

I intentionally told you nothing about Dan in setting the scene for that brief exchange. Dan gets exactly one short line of dialogue. What does it tell us about him? Quite a lot.

Casual swearing suggests that Dan is not a particularly formal guy. He chooses not to stoke Steve’s ego, but rather, to tell Steve the truth, suggesting that Dan is his own man with his own opinions, and isn’t afraid to share them.

I have not indicated how Dan delivers his line: you could read it as a humorous jibe, or as a frank and serious assessment. Both options imply something about Dan’s personality. Is he glibly laughing off the situation, or is he trying to help Steve see the seriousness of it? Either way, Dan is conveying a subtext of “Dude, don’t be an idiot. This is not a realistic career path for you.” It’s a short line, but it sure gives us an insight into Dan.

Let’s take a different example. Ellen and Julia have become fast friends after Ellen joined the coffee shop Julia works at. They are both in their mid-20s, post-college, figuring out how to deal with careers and boyfriends, how to make lives for themselves. One evening, Ellen calls Julia. After some opening chit-chat, Julia gets the feeling all is not well:

The line was quiet for a while. Julia asked “Hey, are you ok? You sound upset.”

Ellen sighed. “Rick stormed out. Hours ago. He’s not usually gone so long.”

“You guys fight too much. What happened this time?”

“I don’t know. I was cooking. I don’t even know what we were arguing about. I got really upset, and I threw a knife at him.”


“Relax, he ducked. I didn’t hit him. Anyway, he took off.”

“Well, I expect he’ll be back soon enough. Don’t sweat it.”

Let us further imagine that Julia is the protagonist of this novel. The author presumably intends for Julia to be a strong, sympathetic character—someone with a good head on her shoulders. That may be the image the author has worked to craft for Julia, but what does this exchange show about her?

Let’s actually start with what it shows about Ellen. It shows that Ellen probably doesn’t know when to get out of a bad relationship. It shows that she isn’t very good at controlling her reactions, and that she is prone to violent outbursts.

I don’t know about you, but Ellen is not the sort of person I would particularly want to have as a friend. Yet, supposedly she and Julia are good friends. Why? Why does Julia choose to be friends with a scary and dangerous person? It’s not like they have history. Ellen hasn’t given Julia a kidney. They haven’t known each other since kindergarten. There’s nothing like that, so Julia’s casual dismissal of Ellen’s actions at the end of the dialogue does enormous damage the reader’s view of her as a sensible person.

I’m not saying your characters should never say anything stupid. Sometimes they should, because they’re only human and people make mistakes. Sometimes that’s an important part of the story.

But I am saying that writers need to be very sensitive to the implications of the words they put into their characters mouths. If you make your characters say something dumb, it had better be on purpose because what they say says a lot about them.

The good news is that you are entirely well equipped to handle these nuances of dialogue. Remember, you’ve put in your tens of thousands of hours of practice at both speaking and listening, just like every one of your readers. You’re an expert, just like they are. Be confident in your expertise, and apply it to ensure that what your characters say conveys what you want it to.

Tomorrow: How to create distinctive dialogue for your characters.

July 14, 2009 18:37 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, bad relationship

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Hypothetical dialogue vs. inner monologue

There’s a style of first-person writing that reads as though you’re riding shotgun in the narrator’s mental car, listening to the narrator explain his life as he goes along. It’s a style that fluidly intermixes narrated actions and events with inner monologue, philosophizing, and reflection:

I was never what you’d call a happy child. I’m not looking for pity or anything, it’s just a fact. Something that was true. It’s not like I felt bad about it when I was a kid. Kids don’t know shit. They assume that whatever happens is normal. I took it that way, anyhow.

Maybe other kids were happy, maybe they were just as miserable as me. I have no idea. Kids are also really self-centered that way, you know? Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. If you asked me how I really was, I guess I’d say “I just floated along, tried to keep an even keel.” That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.

Notice, in that brief bit, a quote. It’s not dialogue because the narrator isn’t actually saying anything to anyone. It’s a form of hypothetical dialogue, what-I-would-say-if-asked, intended to convey something about the narrator. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. There will be times when it is entirely appropriate to use this device. The questions you must ask as you write are: what is the alternative, and what does each option convey about the character?

The alternative is to re-write so the ideas in the quote are conveyed in the same inner-monologue fashion as the rest:

Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. It’s more like I just floated along all the time. Tried to keep an even keel. That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.

It’s almost exactly the same words, but notice the shift. If your story is almost entirely made up of inner monologue (as this style tends to be), introducing a piece of hypothetical dialogue as in the first example is a minor POV break. As a narrative issue, you are taking the story out of the narrator’s head to step briefly into the narrator’s mouth.

It may seem like a minor difference, but consider the implications: people lie with their mouths. What people choose to say is not always the whole, unvarnished truth. Speech—and thus, dialogue of any form—is always filtered through a person’s desire to control how others perceive them.

Dialogue places the reader at a greater emotional distance from the narrator. It admits the possibility that the narrator is keeping something back, not telling the whole truth. But if you stay in the realm of inner monologue, stay inside the narrator’s head, that distance is eliminated. You keep the reader as close to the narrator as possible.

If your goal is not, in fact, to keep something back from the reader then in my opinion this is the stronger choice. For first-person monologue stories, showing character is all about giving the reader the sense of what it’s like to be that character. What it’s like to have those thoughts, opinions, and attitudes. In my opinion, staying in the narrator’s head and out of the narrator’s mouth better enables you to do this.

June 30, 2009 18:26 UTC

Tags: dialogue, monologue, POV, first-person, lies

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