Yesterday I wrote about characters, and today I promised dialogue help. I've counseled before in this blog about reading aloud, and I still think it's the best way to tell if your dialogue is good. You should "hear" your characters speaking in your mind, and each voice should be unique and compelling.

A character has to have a pattern, sound, and syntax that rings true to his or her social station. Shakespeare is a great example (but when is he not?). Look at the difference in Shakespeare's noble characters and the servants in the plays. Romeo and Juliet, for example, express themselves in beautiful, figurative language. Even the nasty Lord Capulet has a pretty turn of phrase, mourning the daughter he had no understanding of: "The earth has swallowed all my hopes but she." On the other hand, the nurse, a;though she loved Juliet dearly, has no words to express her sorrow, and merely repeats over and over, "Alack, alack, alack." Her vocabulary is limited, though her grief is not. We have to take into account each character's ability to express himself and his method for doing so.

There are those among us who speak much and those who speak little. Men tend to make flat statements, women tend to offer comments that encourage discussion. Of course that isn't always true, and you can make a female character interesting just by having her speak in an assertive manner. We'll probably want to know how she got to be like that.

Having a character add explanation to a statement is great for exposition needed to make the plot move, but there has to be a reason for such dialogue or at least a character who seldom shuts up. How many of us have been pulled out of a story because someone starts rambling about the history of the building they're in with no apparent need to do so? It's no surprise that authors often include a chatty best friend who can be counted on to spill in her ramblings things we need to know about other characters.

When strong characters break down and spill their guts, their words must be chosen carefully. At some point the reader needs to know it if the protag was molested as a child, but she can't give that information up too easily or she comes across as a whiner, no matter how tragic the event. Bald statements of fact, a la John Steinbeck, can give information and reveal character at the same time: "My wife left me for a guy who makes a lot more money and takes her out to dinner three nights a week" isn't bad, but for some characters a simple, "There 's no Mrs. Smith anymore" is more telling.

Finally, I often get asked at my workshops about profanity. Dialogue that reflects "real life" generates a lot of discussion. Some don't want to read profanity at all. I used one word in MACBETH'S NIECE that is considered impolite these days but was acceptable in the past. It bothered one lady enough that she contacted me to say so. Other people don't mind a little profanity, feeling it is realistic and therefore helps immerse one into the story. And then there are those who revel in it, feeling it creates a mood that cannot be achieved any other way. I'd say each author has to decide that question based on an understanding that certain people read certain types of books. If you want to be the next Elmore Leonard, you will write differently than if you want to be the next Agatha Christie.

Either way, good luck with it.

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Comment by Peg Herring on March 14, 2008 at 9:09pm
Thanks, jKathleen. Most of the time my blog is me figuring things out for myself, internalizing what I'm learning as I go, but I hope that's helpful for others. I taught English for 26 years, but it's practical application that has really made me analyze my own writing.
Comment by jKathleen on March 14, 2008 at 7:59am
Reading out loud to yourself, or your cat is so very true. I became so more in touch with myself. I think it, but I didn’t necessarily write it that way. If my editor hadn’t known me since eight grade, she wouldn’t know how I run off and never, use punctuation. I started reading out loud to get the sound of my sarcasm or temperment of my charaters and now it almost comes naturally to me to re check my thinking. You have expressed my feelings on this totally. I certainly enjoy your blog.

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