16: Who Said What? Yes. What? Yes. Who Did? Yes. I Mean No. I Mean Yes…I Think: Dialogue.

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“If you treat your characters like people, they’ll reward you by being fully developed individuals.” ― Don Roff

Unless your characters are all mute, they’re going to have conversations with each other. Dialogue is tough. Realistic dialogue is even tougher.

Many writers have a tendency to have characters speak as we would write essays and papers—in full sentences, flowing with correct grammar, punctuation, every “t” crossed and “i” dotted. Formally, in other words. But, really, there is nary a person who speaks that way, save for a few people like the Queen of England or some stiff professor of English at an Ivy League school. But even then I’m sure they relax their way of speaking in less formal settings.

At first, it’s okay to have your characters speak like that. The you can’t change nothing bit I keep bringing up; too-formal dialogue is changable dialogue. But, eventually, you’ll need to have them sound like real people so they feel real to you, and to your readers. I’m sure you’ve read stories where a character was, at best, two-dimensional. And tha d two-dimensionality likely stemmed from the character’s manner of speaking.

Often, it’s the dialogue that ends up deflating what would otherwise be nicely-crafted character.

Working on the biographies of your characters will help with how they talk. As you get to know their habits and backgrounds, you’ll learn their mannerisms—speech and physically. If they jiggle their knee when they sit, it could mean they speak in anxiety-driven spurts.

How your characters speak will depend on a lot of things.

Their culture.aTheir background.bTheir friends. If they’re bookish. Maybe someone learned how to speak English by watching old Westerns and sounds like John Wayne. Or maybe they’re like the two brothers in Better Off Dead who learned how to speak by listening to Howard Cosell, who had a very dis-tinct-tive-way of speak-ing.

However your characters speak, it will not be formal and proper and sounding like an A+ paper or dissertation you wrote on The Canterbury Tales. Unless they’re quoting said A+ paper. And you man not fully know how your characters speak until well into your story

Almosr towards the end of writing Coming Home, I still found nuances of Midwestern speech (the story takes place in a small northwestern Kansas town).

During an episode of Counting Cars, a man from Oklahoma came to the shop. I was delighted to pick up a phrase from him I had no idea existed, but was very Midwestern: “near enough”. As in, You think you know a lot, but you don’t know near enough to be an expert. Or, I tried hard to pull the tire out of the mucky pond, but I didn’t have near enough strength to do so.

I was so excited I paused the show and started skimming through my current draft of Coming Home to find spots to fit in that phrase.

That’s the real key to creating real dialogue: Listening to real people.

You can surreptitiously record conversations on your phone, then go home and transcribe them to learn how to write how people actually speak. Record families in grocery stores (moms and dads short on patience, for example), friends in line at a movie theater, folks at a coffee shop. And so on.

Listen for clipped words.

For “gonna” instead of “going to”. “Shoulda” and “woulda” instead of “should have” and “would have”. And, to that, “should of” and “would of” instead of the grammatically correct “should have” and “would have”. “Me and her” or “her and me” instead of “she and I”. “Me and him” instead of “he and I” as in he and I went to the movies. You’d more likely hear, my mother gave the squirrel trap to him and me.

Make your characters distinct by giving them different speech traits—cadence (fast, slow, mumbling) and grammar.

Maybe one speaks so softly people have trouble hearing him, and that worms into his self-confidence, thereby causing him to speak even more softly. Or maybe there’s a young girl who has the lung and vocal cord power of a foghorn on steroids. Maybe a character has difficulty saying certain combinations of words.

(For years, even into my late teens or so, the word “pretty” came out as “pri-yee”.  Occasionally I had the same issue with “little”. It came out “li-uhl”. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get my tongue to pronounce the two Ts. Yet, I could say words like “butter” and “better” just fine. Have a character have a trait like that.)

Also, make it really, really clear who is speaking.

This is especially important for long conversations.

It’s very annoying to be jolted out of the narrative and have to stop and count back  on a conversation, (Jill, Jack, Jill, Jack, Jill—no wait. Jack. Or no, yes—Jill, Jack…Jill, Jack…wait….) It’s poor writing and whoever edited the book should have caught it as clearly the author didn’t.

This happens in three different ways, generally:

1) You don’t use any indication whatsoever who’s speaking. It’s just this:

“Tori went to the store.”
“She did? Why?”
“Good question. It’s her third trip today.”
“Doesn’t she write a list?”
“I don’t know.”
“But that’s stupid.”

And so on. Sometimes conversations like this go on for a whole page. Back and forth. You may know who’s speaking because you wrote it and you’re mired in it. But your readers will lose track after about five lines.

2) You have two people of the same sex and you keep saying “he” or “she” and you don’t indicate the speaker by name every now and then. (Even if you’re in a scene where it’s just one person thinking to themselves, or it’s within that character’s point of view, it’s a good writing practice to still use the character’s name every 3-4 times you use the pronoun. The exception is if it’s a first-person narrative. You wouldn’t have your narrator refer to themselves in the third-person…unless that’s a trait they have.)

I have a tendency to do the pronoun foible. Not long ago, as I looked over a passage in a published copy of Coming Home, I came to a scene with Lana and her friend Betty Carole; I discovered a paragraph that had about eight or nine references to “she” and I had no idea which “she” I meant after a bit! At one time I did, but, in the time that’s passed, I’d lost what’s known as the “metatags” your brain assigns to things.

A way to test your dialogue and if your characters are distinctive is to copy a long conversation with two or more people, then paste it into a new document, take out all references that indicate directly who is speaking, then read it out loud to yourself.

This makes you actually hear the words (reading your work in progress out loud is enormously helpful as it forces you to take in your writing differently.)

Or, better yet, read it out loud to an audience of one or more and see if they can follow along.

Yes, it can make you feel very self-conscious to read your writing (especially a work that’s sill very much in progress) out loud. But that’s good, because then you really start listening hard to your words, and the feedback you get has the amazing after-effect of creating further awareness as you write new sections of your story.

So how does reading your work out loud help with dialogue or even a scene without it?

Well, if your audience gets confused, they’ll have to stop and think, hard, about who is saying what, like my example above. You want your readers to flow with the story you’ve created, get sucked in and lost. Not have to become conversation accountants. And it’s amazing when I’ve read something out loud to myself how I get confused; if you stumble, and keep stumbling, over a certain point in your scene, that’s an indication you need to fix it.

When you read silently, your brain fills in the gaps and you don’t catch the stumble points, if you will.

(Something else I do is turn on the voice feedback feature of my computer and have it read a section out loud to me; while the narration lacks in human nuances of inflecion, it still helps.)

There are four common reasons a reader gets lost in dialogue:

  1. You don’t have enough references as to who is speaking to whom. Have a character perform an action before speaking. (Jimmy tapped his nose, thinking a moment). This also eliminates the need for “said”. Or simply have another character use their name when responding. (“Carl, I can’t tell you the air-speed velocity of a unladen sparrow, but I can tell you how many wood chucks can chuck wood.”)
  2. The voices are too similar. As in, two characters have the same way of speaking. same cadence. Same grammar.
  3. Too many pronouns are used and no reference to the person with their proper name. (I have a tendency to do this, and I have to be really mindful of it when I’m writing—and I still have readers point out long paragraphs where they lose which she or he is doing or saying what.)
  4. A combination of all of the above.

It’s easy to overlook this, because you’re sitting, swimming, eating, breathing, choking on, drowning in your story 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You know who is saying what and to whom because you wrote it. At first, if you need to put “said” at the end of each bit of dialogue, that’s fine.

When you go back to edit, you can start finding more creative ways to indicate who the speaker is, such as with action: Minerva set her purse down on the stool. “What a horrible day it’s been!” Even if there’s other people in the room, the action preceding the dialogue indicates who’s speaking.

As stated above, you can still use “said” (I do in Backbeat, while in Coming Home I made it a point to indicate the speaker by action; this helped me create a totally different narrative voice between the two books.) My suggestion, though, is to treat “said” somewhat like exclamation points, the “habañero” of grammar. You can use “said” more often than exclamation points, but don’t rely on it as your only source of indicating who’s speaking. And you still have to be mindful of pronouns.

When I do rough dialogue scenes I’m thinking of, I sometimes write it out like it would appear in the novel, but, more often I do it like this:

Ronald: “Well, I lost another shoe today.”
Eddie: “Lost another shoe? What do you mean?”
Ronald: “Well, you know. I was just walking along and I realized my foot felt weird and I looked down. I only had on one shoe. And hadn’t for awhile.”
Eddie (incredulous, still blinking): “But what the hell, man? Don’t you tie them both on? Or does your foot, like, shrink over the day or something?”
Ronald: “Yeah, I tie ’em both. Beats me how it happens. Upshot is it wasn’t a favorite pair of shoes. I hate it when it’s a favorite pair of shoes. Thank God for Vera, my secretary. She keeps an extra pair of shoes for me in her desk.”

(This is known as “simple dialogue”.)

It helps me work out not only the scene, but the reactions and the character personalities, especially if it’s early in the story’s development.

Writing conversations in this way also helps me develop the structure of the dialogue/conversation, as I talked about in my previous post, as well as developing how your character will speak and even act as he or she speaks.

I begin to understand Eddie’s actually the one whose more focused in life (family, no debt, drives a used, but well-taken care of car).  I might envision him as a surfer-type who enjoys a fat blunt now and again. Ronald, however, is a bit more off in his own world much of the time, even though he’s the owner of a successful, growing business. This also brings out that the two men are likely only just getting to know each other. (Had they been friends longer, the shoe loss wouldn’t be a surprise to Eddie).

I jot down conversations like this throughout the work in progress, as well as before I even begin when a scene comes to me and I want to record it. (Keep notepads handy. Your phone as well to use the note-taking or voice memo apps when you get struck by something interesting, especially if it unlocks a part of the story where you were somewhat stuck.)

As you go through the editing process, as you refine and hone, as you get more and more feedback, you’ll find it easier and easier to find creative ways to differentiate between your characters.

Next Post: Finding Your Writing Style


Write out your own short conversation in the simple dialogue format—either something new, or one from your current story. Rework it until it’s written with action, indicating who is speaking as well as showing what the personalities of each character is.

(To make this exercise simple, choose or create a passage of dialogue that has no more than three people—at least for the first time. Once you’ve done that, and you want to challenge yourself more, create or find a conversation with more than three people.)

WRITING PROMPT: Write out a longish (about 25 lines) conversation between two people. Leave out any references to the speakers. Set it aside and come back to it in a short while and reread it. Are you able to follow it now? If not, go through it and creatively indicate who each speaker is without using any word like “said” or “responded”.

Questions? Comments? How do you create dialogue to differentiate between your characters? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!

Crafting Characters by Using Subext by Guest Author Magna Kruger: Part 3 of 3
17: Finding Your Writing Style and Voice

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