Writing Dialogue, Part Four: Creating a Unique Voice

Previous posts in this series have focused on dialogue tags, but in this final part it’s time to discuss what is being said. In real life, people vary in the words they say, whether it is speaking in a dialect, inserting incorrect grammar, using jargon or trendy words, or having an accent. Many variables affect what people say, and it’s this variety that shapes their personalities and how others interact with them.

Characters are boring if not fully developed, and one of the best ways to develop a character is by focusing on their dialogue. Even if your story is not very dialogue driven, the smallest amount of speaking is crucial for making your character seem real in the mind of the reader. Readers need to relate to the people they are reading about, and hearing their voices brings them closer together.

Ask yourself who your character is. How old is he? What region of the world does he live in? What does he do for a living? What places does he visit, or with whom does he spend his time? Answers to these questions can determine the type of speech the character uses. Let’s look at some examples of different types of characters and what they might say.

Sixteen-year-old Stacy might say to her friends, “Oh my God you guys, can you even believe what Andy posted on Facebook? I mean, that’s like the most insane thing to happen ever.”

Seventy-year-old Evelyn might say to her friends, “My goodness, have you seen the news? It’s unbelievable what this world has come to.”

These two may have seen the same news, but are showing their surprise in very different ways based on their age. It shows us that Stacy is a very energetic teenager, and that Evelyn is a very composed yet disdainful older woman. Now let’s look at two characters that live in different regions of the United States.

Brian, living in the inner city, says, “Nah. Look, dude. That’s not how I roll.”

David, residing on a southern farm, says, “I’m tellin’ ya, mister, that’s just not how them things work.”

The first man is using cool, trendy words that make him sound confident, even a bit cocky. The second man is using a dialect that, though cliché, is authentic to the smooth southern style we expect to hear from people in rural southern America.

Let’s look at one more scenario where dialogue can depict the type of person a character is. Daniel is a college student, and upon arriving on campus he meets up with a friend. “Hey, what’s up, man?” Then he goes to class and says to his teacher, “Good morning, Mr. Smith.” This shows us that Daniel is not just all-around friendly, but also knows to address his friends differently from those of authority. Therefore we see Daniel as respectful. If he instead said, “What’s up, Smith?” we either see disrespect or that Daniel is close friends with his teacher.

Next time you start a new story or edit an existing one, stop when your characters speak. Analyze who they are and determine if what they are about to say fits them. Don’t put words in their mouth; let them speak for themselves.

Writing Dialogue, Part Three: Avoiding Adverbs

In Part Two of this series, we discussed how the use of he said/she said in dialogue tags is sufficient, as well as some ways to use descriptive language to replace tags entirely. Now we will dig deeper and analyze one of the biggest blemishes in fiction writing: the use of -ly adverbs in dialogue tags.

I’ll once again quote Stephen King from his book On Writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” That may seem a bit harsh, but it encompasses what many editors feel when such writing graces their desk. When writers use these words to describe how the character is speaking, it is a sign of fear, fear that the reader will not understand how the words are spoken. The manner of speaking is just as important as the words being said, and the easiest way to convey that is to use an all-encompassing adverb. But what is easy is not always what is best.

One great thing about the English language is that it is, in a way, customizable. Take pretty much any adjective, add an -ly to the end, and you got yourself a new word that you can use to describe how your character is speaking. Here are some examples:

“I can’t wait for the party!” Joe said excitedly.

“This is the worst day of my life,” Samantha said sorrowfully.

“Your days are numbered,” Tom said menacingly.

Do these three adverbs convey how the characters have spoken their words? Of course they do, and it’s easy to write dialogue this way and know the reader will understand. But so much more could be done to bring these pieces of dialogue to life. We want our readers to see the characters as they speak. Just like in real life, people use body language to show more about what they are saying, and we can use this to make the words more meaningful and bring descriptive strength to the story. Here’s how we can improve these lines of dialogue:

“I can’t wait for the party!” Joe said, jumping up and down.

OR:

Joe jumped up and down. “I can’t wait for the party!”

“This is the worst day of my life,” Samantha said, her voice wavering.

OR:

Samantha looked down at the ground, her eyes watering. “This is the worst day of my life.”

“Your days are numbered,” Tom said, his voice low enough to be a growl.

OR:

Tom leaned closer and bared his teeth. “Your days are numbered.”

As I wrote these revisions, I asked myself, “What would a person do if they said these words? What are they physically doing at that moment? How can we describe the tone of voice in vivid detail?” I imagined that Joe showed his excitement by jumping up and down. For Samantha and Tom, I first thought of how to describe sorrowful and menacing voices, then I thought of how each might physically display their feelings. By describing sorrow, we might feel more connected or empathetic toward Samantha, and describing menace could make us fear Tom, or feel more concerned for the character he is speaking to. And this is what we want our readers to experience.

If you find yourself using an -ly adverb in a dialogue tag, stop and envision what is happening to that character. Then bring the words, and thus your characters, to life.

In Part Four, I’ll focus on what it takes to give characters their own unique voice, and using these ideas to improve character development.

Writing Dialogue, Part Two: The Power of Said

In Part One of this series we discussed the ideal placement of the dialogue tag. Part Two begins analyzing the guts of the tag, specifically the use of said. I’ll quote Stephen King from his excellent book, On Writing:  “. . . while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” Now, I won’t be going into adverbs until Part Three, but the truth in the latter part of this quote deserves its own focus.

Anecdote time: When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had the class do a brainstorming project where we were to come up with as many words as possible to replace said in a dialogue tag, and were encouraged to use this variety in our writing. My fifth-grade mind thought that was a great idea; my grown-up writer/editor mind pictures The Scream painting by Edvard Munch. Variety is good in writing, but there is a time and a place for it.

Examples of decent variety in dialogue tags would be things like whispered, shouted, or mumbled. I list these because it can be difficult to use context or description to convey the style of speaking to the reader. However, it can be done, and can even bring more descriptive qualities to the scene in which the dialogue is taking place.

Consider this first example:

“We have to keep this a secret,” Sam whispered. “It could get us in trouble.”

There’s really nothing wrong with this quote, but we can revise it slightly:

Sam lowered his voice to a whisper. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Or:

Sam leaned closer to Julie’s ear. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Both of these revisions remove the tag altogether. The first one still states that the words were whispered, but it is used more like a noun rather than a verb. But verbs are great, you might say. They convey action! Indeed, but let’s use that verb action differently, such as in the last revision. Sam leaning in to Julie’s ear shows the reader what the characters are doing and can infer that the words are spoken in a whisper because he is so close. Readers are smart like that.

Let’s also look at some examples of how to do similar tricks with shouted and mumbled dialogue:

“I’m going crazy!” Dave shouted. –> Dave took a deep breath and tugged at his hair. “I’m going crazy!”

Not only do we see Dave showing his exasperation, but the exclamation point is what does the shouting for us.

“This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Emma mumbled. –> Looking away, Emma kept her voice low. “This is the worse idea I’ve ever heard.”

In this example, we see Emma’s reaction and are prepared for her tone of voice before she speaks.

If you find yourself wanting to use verbs other than said, consider whether you can use descriptive action to replace the tag. If your dialogue and the surrounding prose are strong enough, then said is all you need. In Part Three I’ll dive into adverbs in dialogue tags, and how to avoid the urge to use them.

Writing Dialogue, Part One: Dialogue Tag Placement

Dialogue is a huge driving force in fiction writing. It helps with character development, giving each person a unique voice, and is an easy way to “show, not tell.” In Part One of a four-part series, I discuss the placement of dialogue tags, or the statements of who is speaking. It may not sound like something important, but in fact it is actually crucial.

Writers developing their stories always know who is speaking, but do the readers? Consider this example:

“I apologize. I was distracted. Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long,” John said a little stiffly.

Not only do we not know who is speaking until the end of the five-sentence paragraph, but also how it was spoken. As we read, we may not have had the character speak with a stiff tone, but rather a sincere once. Or maybe we read it as if a completely different character was speaking. Some readers might then be inclined to reread the paragraph in the “correct” way.

Let’s revise this to make it clearer:

“I apologize. I was distracted,” John said a little stiffly. “Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long.”

Now we know the who and the how of this piece of dialogue right away. The rest of the lines after the tag read smoother, and readers can focus on the character’s voice and how it relates to the story.

Another scenario in which the placement of the dialogue tag is imperative is when more than two people are speaking. With just two characters conversing it is easy to alternate the lines without tags and the reader can follow without a problem. Throw in more people and you’ll get something like the following example where four characters are talking:

“Look up,” said Kit.

“Look up?”

“Scorpions will cling to walls and ceilings and drop down on you suddenly,” Nance said.

“Ooh. That’s bad.”  Sophie was shivering with dread.

“Relax. Enjoy the ride. See how the trees are covered with golden blossoms. They’ll blanket everything with their blossoms and pollen for a month.”

“Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

“It’s everywhere in the Territory.  Part of the region’s charm, really.”

By context of the previous paragraphs not shown here, the second line is known to be spoken by Sophie, so no tag is needed there. We can also correctly deduce that the fifth line is spoken by Nance. However, we cannot easily figure out who is addressing Ben. The tone of the sentence doesn’t quite fit the frightened Sophie, and Nance just spoke the line before. So, is it Kit? Did Sophie say it to change the subject? We need a tag to know for sure.

After I queried the author, he chose to add a very simple tag that prevents the story from falling off the tracks:

Kit said, “Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

When writing dialogue, consider the reader’s ability to follow along. If there is any doubt of who might be speaking, find a way to make it clear.

In Part Two of this series, I’ll talk more about dialogue tags and how to keep them simple, yet strong.