Who Is Talking?
How your characters speak reveals their personality. Especially in mysteries, characters reveal their character, even when they try to hide it. The challenge for writers is to make the language each character uses, appropriate to that character and distinct from other characters in the story. That way, readers understand who is talking.
Dialogue is a verbal action. When a character speaks, they are actively moving the story forward. When the language, rhythm, and voice is clear for each character, your dialogue not only flows in your story you’ll minimize the need for repetitive dialogue tags.
Preparing for Dialogue
The best way to write distinctive dialogue is to know your character.
Capture the details to make each speaker in your novel unique. Use syntax, vocabulary, and tone to help your reader understand who is speaking. The more you individualize speech, the better your reader understands the character.
Dialogue in Your Story
When you understand your character, you get inside their head and think the way they think. What they say, in dialogue, reflects their thinking. Understanding your character’s motivation helps you create dialogue unique to that character.
Talking like your character becomes innate the more you understand. You’ll avoid dialogue traps that beginning writers often make.
If you think of dialogue as action, you will avoid these dialogue traps because the words your character says reflect the character’s inner workings in the same way other actions do. When you know your characters well all the actions, including dialogue, come from internal motivation.
Characters speak when they need rather than you thinking I need some dialogue here. You’ll stop worrying about getting dialogue right,
and use it as another storytelling tool.
Photo by Yolanda Sun on Unsplash
Dialogue and Narrative
Grammar is essential to good storytelling; it keeps the reader from getting lost. When writing narrative good grammar is essential. But when your characters speak, they talk like human beings. People don't speak in semicolons and neither should your characters.
Robert Harris wrote a trilogy about the great legal orator Cicero: Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator. In these stories, whether speaking in private or conducting a public oration, Cicero does not speak with semicolons in the dialogue.
Natural speech is a key element in creating an empathic character. Your editor may get stuck with the fine points of grammar within dialogue, but your readers want a character to speak in flow, just the way real people do.
An editor sparked the idea for this post with a comment about the lack of semicolons in a character's speech. My reply was the title of this post: Characters don't speak in semicolons.
Simple tricks to dialogue
As a writer, you can enliven your dialogue by writing in natural speech flow. The trick is to use punctuation and possibly break some grammar rules.
On the other hand, you'll want to make sure your dialogue is punctuated correctly for interruptions, breaks, and attributions.
Editor Jodie Renner provides useful guidelines in her article for Kill Zone.
A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?
Dialogue is the Spice of Character Building
Dialogue is one of the strongest ways to get your readers emotionally involved with a character.
When I wrote the introductory scene for Cassiodorus in Ravenna: A Mosaic where he speaks in long, convoluted sentences and does not get to the point, one of my fellow writers said, "Tell me he dies before the book ends." Now that's an emotional response. He was sorry to hear that Cassiodorus lived on into his nineties, well outside the time frame of the story.
Your character may speak in monosyllabic words or long phrases. Either way, make the dialogue reflect your character and how he or she interacts with the other personae in your story.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.