Being a Better Writer: Showing Character Through Dialog

This post was originally written and posted May 12th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back! Apologies for the delay!

So, to start off this week’s writing guide, I have a question for all of you. What’s the difference between these two sentences?

“No thanks,” he said.

and

“No, thanks,” he said.

At first glance, any editor can tell you what the problem is. The first sentence is grammatically incorrect, while the second is grammatically correct.

Except therein lies our problem. Because while the second is grammatically correct, contextually, it’s incorrect.

Oh, boy … see the conundrum here?

Dialogue is one of those areas that can be intensely difficult to draw a line on because of situations like these. Looking at the above example, any editor who’s simply looking for grammatical perfection is going to cross off the first sentence without a second thought, and head right to the second. But what if we take a step back, and compare the two sentences? How do they read? What do they tell us, the reader, at a base level?

We have the “correct” sentence, which is “No, thanks.” Our brains, trained on literature as they are, will interpret this as “No – slight pause – thanks.” However, what about the incorrect sentence? There’s no comma, and our minds will instantly read this as “No thanks” without the pause.

Now let’s put this in a scene. We have a grizzled FBI man, undercover on a train, sitting in his seat and pretending to be a newspaper. His passenger, a woman who has no idea who he is, turns towards him and asks “Would you like some gum?”

Now, let’s look at his response. The grammatically correct response is “No, thanks.” However, what differences does this imply about his character over “No thanks,” without any pause? One is timely, implies a pause and perhaps some thought. The other is brusque, pre-determined, almost dismissive, and can be more so based on what action he couples with his statement.

Whoa. Did we really just read all that out based on whether or not a single comma was present in the dialogue?

This is the power of dialogue. What’s more, this is the power that breaking or bending a single small rule can achieve. While one is technically incorrect, it’s use is tool to show the reader our characters emotions and mindset (as opposed to telling).

This is part of the reason why writing real, true-to-character dialogue that brings a character to life is tricky. Because let’s face it: When we speak, we don’t obey grammatical rules or conventions very frequently. In fact, half the time we just pay lip service to them while butchering the rules in their own right, slamming together words or phrases that have no place being together, verbing words that are not verbs … I could go on all day.

Basically, a transcript of a standard conversation is enough to give really picky grammar editors a complete coronary.

Of course, you don’t want to actually write that out in your story because true-to-life dialogue is actually pretty rough on the eyes. No one wants to read that. After all, the rules exist for a reason. So, what do you do?

You compromise. This is where things get tricky. Like I said, each of us breaks or keeps rules when we speak all the time. If you want your character to not just live through dialogue, but come to life, then you’re going to need to decide which rules to break.

Oh man, I can hear my inbox exploding from here.

Alright, let’s take an example from pop culture. I’ve mentioned this before, but in a certain television show, there is a character named Luna who is in possession of a lesser know speaking “tic.”  One that isn’t her occasional lapse into old English.

She doesn’t use contractions.

It’s true. She doesn’t say “I’m.” She says “I am.” Same with “it’s” versus “it is,” or “we’re” versus “we are.” Luna does not use contractions. Ever.

So what does this tell us about her, right off the bat? That she’s very formal perhaps, with her speaking? That she is speaking very carefully to avoid making a mistake with her words? That perhaps she does not have a firm grasp of the language period in which she’s currently living?

Interesting, isn’t it? A single, simple change can actually reveal a lot about a character if we simply take a look.

Let’s take another look at a real life example. Have you ever watched a public official make a speech in front of thousands? Perhaps a President of a country or corporation? Now, compare how they speak in that situation compared to say … a relaxed interview with someone like Colbert or Stewart.

Is there a difference in how they talk? Of course there is. Just as there is a difference in the way your friends speak to you compared to their bosses.

Alright, so we’ve established these two concepts, that people speak differently based on who they’re speaking to or what situation they’re in, and that we don’t always follow the conventions of grammar when doing so. So how do we turn that into writing?

First of all, we don’t want to write completely realistic dialogue. Like I said above, it’s an eyesore to read. What you can do however, is find the few phrases, patterns, or tics that fit with the character or the situation they’re in, and use those instead. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader with improper grammar or dialogue. But, if having your character be somewhat long-winded with a somewhat roundabout way of saying things develops them, then yes, it can be justified.

I’ve been going through a lot of this with my editing on Dead Silver. There are characters who use certain phrases or colloquialisms that definitely aren’t correct. My editor isn’t fond of them. But often, I leave them in. Or I leave a section he’s rearranged in its more confusing state, because the character speaking at the time isn’t exactly making much sense. Earlier I mentioned the act of showing, not telling through use of the dialogue, and in Dead Silver, there are instances of this. Not everywhere, but frequently enough that the reader is reminded (similar in usage to the 1-in-5 rule of thumb use of an alternate to “said”).

Another example of strong character defining moment in Dead Silver: The main character spends the first half of the book never once correctly remembering a certain character’s name. He’s never met her, her name is a bit odd, and it sort of becomes a running joke.

Until he finds her corpse.

After that, and for the rest of the book, he never once gets her name wrong.

What does that tells us about the character? What do we learn about who he is based on that simple, background bit of dialogue? And in turn, what do you want your character’s dialogue to say about them?

Will they be impatient? Straightforward? Hesitant? How do they speak when they’re flirting with someone? What about when they’re sad? Angry? Happy?

Are they like Steel, who gets more direct and to the point the more tense a situation becomes? Like Dawn, who even in a dangerous situation, is going to be using close to proper grammar? What does Sabra’s occasional slip-up with words and pronunciation, or use of his native tongue, tell the reader?

Note that this is more than a simple “ethnic” or location-based label. Let’s take Hunter, for instance. Everyone who has read Rise knows that he speaks with an Aussie accent. But is that the limit of the definition extended to him in his dialogue? Certainly it’s distinct, but is that all there is to him?

No. He’s also relaxed, much more so than Steel or Dawn. The non-Aussie colloquialisms, his choice of words, how he structures his sentences? They fit a mid-point between Steel’s serious, to-the-point words, and Nova’s relaxed, laid back dialogue. Hunter tends to draw out sentences longer than they need to be, use words that don’t imply a sense of urgency. Until he does use them, and it’s like a bucket of ice water.

A great way to think of this is the “middle name yell” that most parents have. Tell me, what’s the difference in how you feel when A) your mother walks into the room and calmly calls your name and B) your mother walks into your room and calmly calls your entire name, first, middle, and last? The tone of voice is probably pretty similar. But the context that the addition of the middle name adds? You’re in trouble.

Your characters will all be the same way. Some will speak in short, clipped tones. Others will be more relaxed. Regardless of the differences, if you let them show in a character’s words and dialogue, you’re going to have a character who, to the reader is real.

So, how do you learn how to do this?

Practice. Patience. And, surprisingly enough, paying attention. Listen to how your friends speak. Your boss. Yourself. What words does one friend use constantly that other friends don’t? How about phrases? What does this say about them? What do your words say about you? Watch actors on your TV shows and pay special attention to their words. How would another character from the same show say the same sentence? Would it be completely different? Would they use different words? A different tone?

Once you’ve observed what makes individuals speech different, integrate it into your writing. Try and have a character describe who they are or what they’re like without either them or the narration telling the reader. In fact, let’s make that the writing prompt for this week. Write a flash-fiction in which you’re trying to have the character show the reader who they are by what they say. You can reinforce this with what they do after the dialogue, but the key here is that we want the reader to understand something about the character from their dialogue.

For example:

“So?” he asked, smiling. “What’d you think? Do you like it? Isn’t it great?”

“I … Yeah, sure,” she said, looking down at the bouquet in her hands. “It’s great.”

What do we, the reader, already know about what’s going on here, without any narrative descriptors at all?

So, that’s your challenge. We’ve talked about how dialogue can bring a character to life, show who they are. Now it’s your chance to see what you can do with this knowledge. And as always, thanks for reading!

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5 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Showing Character Through Dialog

  1. Very handy tips here! It’s true that speech is very different to written text. I was recently reading a book where the editors had missed out some speech marks and half-way through the sentence I thought, this doesn’t sound like third-person material anymore. It’s only when I got to the end of the sentence and saw, “she said”, that I realised what had happened. It’s a very good tactic to show and not tell, but it comes with practice.

    Like

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