If you’ve ever been told all of your characters sound the same, then you understand how frustrating it can be to try to fix this problem. When I first began to work on dialogue, I tried all of the common techniques: choose vocabulary based on education and background, use appropriate slang or dialect (sparingly!), make your men more direct and let your women ask more questions. All of these things are valid, but in the end all of my dialogue felt false and forced.
So…I went to the master of dialogue—Joss Whedon. I didn’t actually go to him personally of course, but to his body of work. I watched scenes and compared the characters in a scene, but that wasn’t helping. Finally, instead of comparing dialog using that same vocabulary-jargon-gender way of thinking; I started looking at how characters responded with dialog to a particular stimulus. Eureka!
I found one major event and looked at the dialog of characters responding to learning about that event. Each character responded very differently. They saw and responded to the event through their own filter of views, background, and personality.
The idea of writing through the filter of the character will be familiar to authors who already write using the close-third point of view. It’s a common concept for coloring internal dialogue, but it’s equally important to writing spoken dialogue. The key is knowing your characters and developing them fully. Often, working to develop characterization has the direct result of improving dialogue. However, you might also consider adding a ‘dialogue’ pass to your editing routine to review and sharpen dialogue. The place where weak dialogue is most glaringly obvious is in extended conversations, so they merit extra attention.
Here are a few tips for ensuring that your characters come through in their dialogue. After you’ve written a conversation, stop and think about how you can use these tips to strengthen your dialogue.
Emotion - How does a conversation trigger your characters’ emotions? How can you reveal that emotion? Take this one step further and consider personality. One character might always turn to a joke when stressed while another responds with anger.
Background – Is there something in a character’s background that might influence the way they respond in a particular situation? For example, a Viking warrior who has converted to Christianity still turns to the Norse gods when he needs a comparison. He praises a young boy, saying he is as clever as Loki and as constant as Thor.
Goals and Motivations – What are the characters’ fears, insecurities, hopes, and dreams? Can these be reflected in the dialogue? Be careful here. Try to make the reveal indirect, using subtext whenever possible. A teen character who feels he’s trapped in a home that punishes his vibrant personality might replace the word home with jail house when speaking to a friend: I’m headed back to the jail house. The subtext is communicated to the reader without resorting to direct complaints or telling and the personality of the character comes through in the dialogue.
Surprise – Always consider what would be most interesting or surprising. Always strive for memorable dialog. It will naturally be more distinctive.
I used some of these techniques in the scene below to differentiate Callie and Laney in my contemporary romance, Ladybugs and Fireflies. The first version of this conversation conveyed the necessary information, but it was boring and flat. To elevate the dialogue, I considered both the characters’ goals and personalities then looked for something surprising to make the conversation memorable. These two women have similar background, vocabulary, and even a similar sense of humor, but this short phone conversation makes it clear that Laney is restless and rebellious; she is not fond of domestic bliss. At this point in the story the reader already knows that domestic bliss is Callie’s greatest wish.
Already in the kitchen, Callie decided to start the coffee. She pressed the machine’s start button with one hand and pressed Dara’s speed dial number on her phone with the other, but it was Laney who answered.
“You’ve reached the poster home for domesticity,” she said in monotone. “State your business before I die of boredom.”
Callie shook her head at Laney’s antics and teased, “If you die, can I have your wardrobe?”
“Sure. Just promise you’ll leave me something fun to be buried in.”
“Geez, Laney. That is way too morbid.”
“You started it, Copper-Top.”
Callie laughed, picturing Laney as she last saw her. “At least my hair color is natural. Are you still sporting Easter-grass green?”
“Naw. Cougar said green hair wasn’t ladylike enough.”
“I don’t think I want to know what you changed it to.”
Laney and Cougar, her boss, always seemed to be in the middle of their own private war. “Where’s Dara?”
“Dara and Johnny are in the living room watching cartoons in their PJs. It’s so quiet around here I think I might slip into a comatose state at any minute.”
Dialog is a vital part of your story and one upon which readers often heap high expectations. Some readers skim description, others skim narrative. Few readers skim dialog and that makes it worth spending extra time and energy on ensuring your characters come through between the quote marks.
If you have more tips and tricks for better dialog, please share them in the comments. Learning is a never ending process!
Cheryl Alldredge is a self-proclaimed craft junkie whose idea of a good time is rereading a book for the third time to analyze what makes it tick. Her most recent release, Ladybugs and Fireflies, is a contemporary romance set in small town Florida. You can find out more about Cheryl and sign up for her newsletter at www.cherylalldredge.com.