Dialogue: Building Character Through Speech

Currently listening to “Before Time” by Thomas Bergersen.

chatting-girls-vector-set-of-girls-silhouettes-with-speech-bubbles_the-dementia-dialogue

OK, it’s official. I simply cannot keep up with the post-per-day thing. (Probably because I can’t seem to comprehend how I could possibly write a post in only 300 words). On the upside, that little experiment has gotten me back in the writing spirit (I wrote just under 3,000 words on one of my stories yesterday). But since I’m here to give everyone a status update, I thought I might as well talk about something useful while I’m at it. And that something useful is: dialogue.

Description and plot are often hailed as the most important elements of any story, and I would be remiss to say they aren’t critical aspects of writing a successful book, but one element of story and character development that often gets forgotten about is good, old-fashioned talking.

A lot of people I have met get intimidated by dialogue, and for good reason. It is not just an important part of any story, but a vital one, and can too easily go wrong with a simple misplaced phrase. Some readers are rather forgiving about limited or over-done description. They are not always so quick to forgive stilted, awkward, or cliche verbal interaction. This, however, tends to lead people to take the minimalistic approach or avoid dialogue all-together, leaving the reader with a story that is only partially developed and highly unrealistic. (Unless we’re talking about a certain group of teenagers I know who sit side-by-side on a bench and text/Snap Chat each other for hours on end without so much as a spoken word between them).

I am far from what I would consider a “Master of Dialogue,” but I do enjoy it and use it regularly in my work. For me, dialogue gives me one of the best chances I’ll ever get at making my characters real to my readers, not to mention offering a perfect method for clarifying events (within reason) and propelling the plot forward. It is also where most of my comic relief takes place. For instance, here’s a scene from one of my Skyrim fanfictions, Dovahsil.

The innkeeper, Hulda, slid a mug of mead across the counter as Marcurio plopped in a stool, and she flashed him a playful smile when she caught the look of surprise he gave her.

“It’s been a while, Marcurio,” the woman grinned, picking up a rag and rubbing down the counter.

“You remember me?” the mage grinned back, grabbing up the mug and taking a swig. “And you missed me so much that you even gave me a mug of free mead. I’m touched.”

“Oh, that mug isn’t free,” Hulda chuckled, almost menacingly, Marcurio thought. “And of course I remember you,” the innkeeper continued. “You still have a tab.”

A series of coughing and sputtering ensued as Marcurio choked on the mouthful of mead he had almost managed to swallow.

“But it’s been nearly 4 years, Hulda,” the mage protested, setting the mug on the counter and leaning forward, slapping a charming smirk on his face for good effect. “Those were hard times. Can’t we let the past be the past?”

“The past can be the past,” the innkeeper replied nonchalantly. “But last I checked, your tab was still valid today, which means that technically it can’t be considered ‘the past.’”

“Alright, then. Out of the kindness of your heart?”

“If I ran a business like that, I wouldn’t have a business to run.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“Pretty please?”

“No.”

“You know you want to.”

“You know I’ll make you scrub every privy in town if you don’t stop.”

Marcurio recoiled at the suggestion.

“I’ll stop begging,” he squeaked, adjusting the collar of his robe as though it had suddenly become very tight.

“That’s what I thought.”

At that, the man sighed, reaching into his satchel and placing a bag full of coins on the counter.

“There’s 300 here,” he said, sliding it toward Hulda.

The woman’s jaw dropped slightly. Cautiously she reached out, picking up the bag of money and glancing suspiciously inside.

“Just let me know how much more I owe you,” Marcurio continued. “This one included.”

He held up his current mug with a quirky grin.

“This will be enough,” Hulda replied, tucking the bag securely away behind the counter. Then she swatted the mage with her rag.

“You had the money and yet you were trying to weasel out of your debt. You’re such a bum.”

“I prefer business-minded, myself.”

“Cheap-scape sounds more appropriate to me.”

“Oh! You wound me with your words.”

“You’ll make a full recovery, I am sure.”

Recently I read a post called “9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue.” As the title suggests, in this article, the author explores some of the most common mistakes a writer (both professional or otherwise) can make when writing dialogue, and I find that I am (or previously have been) guilty of the large majority of them.

The first two problems presented in the article are “too formal” and “too casual” dialogue. There is a very delicate balance between the formal and casual methods of speech, and using either one to excess or not enough can make any story into a difficult read. Remember, we’re not trying to reinvent Hamlet or Tom Sawyer here.

For me, I tend to use a mixture of formal and casual speech with my characters. For instance, here is a section of dialogue from my book The Four Stars:

“We really do need to continue on,” Gavin said, turning to look at his companions. “Remember that we aren’t actually here to explore. King Dorrian and Lord Rolf need us. We’ve found the end of the path and solved all its puzzles. It would be selfish to ask for more.”

Rayne glanced at the boy with a disappointed pout, then sighed and nodded.

“You’re right,” she said, sheathing her swords. “I had almost forgotten about that little issue.”

“Issue?” Radek inquired, raising a curious eyebrow at the group.

Razi nodded as she sheathed her own sword.

“The Gauls,” the redhead replied. “They’ve invaded the mountains and have our kingdom’s armies cornered in Altis Pass. A messenger came and said that we were being summoned to join the battle, but that we should take the Old Road instead of the pass. That’s how we ended up here.”

“The Gauls are here in the mountains?” Radek inquired, looking up at Nantlais.

“Hmm…yes…” the giant mused. “The Black Banners, the Gauls, as you call them, have sent many scouts through here over the years, so I thought little of it when I received the report that the number of scouts had recently increased. Our duty has never been to guard the pass, though, so I did not know that there was an army of them there.”

In the case of my Legend of the Stars series, I use formal and informal speech to indicate the status and language of the character. Razi, Rayne, Eryn, and Gavin are somewhat educated, but they are also young orphans who haven’t had much interaction with the world outside of their home. As such, they use more contractions in their speech, along with things like “I dunno” and “Okay.” On the other hand, characters like Radek and Nantlais, who have also lived for many years in an isolated community and whose native language is Ancient Elvish rather than Trade Speech, use more formal language, often opting for sentences that have no contractions in them. This is also reflected in places where characters are speaking specifically in one form or another of Elvish, as the idea behind the language is that there are no possessives or contractions (thus, no need for apostrophes in general). This whole system of dialogue, though, is something new to the rewrite of the series, as the original books contained speech that was downright awkward in places thanks to the excessive formality or informality of the language.

I will admit, I have tried the “too realistic” part of this spectrum before on more than one occasion. When I was in high school, there was a website called Worth1000 that regularly held creative contests. Every contest started with some sort of prompt or theme, and the goal was to create something interesting enough that it would garner enough votes to win on-site tokens.

One such contest that I participated in featured a prompt in which the participants were to write a story surrounding an unusual use of money won in a giveaway. (I no longer remember the exact prompt, though). The story I created, titled “Calling Ma,” featured an eccentric old man and a curious young neighbor boy, and the dialogue went like this:

“Um…what are you doing?” Gage repeated, though this time he was slightly more hesitant.

“I’m making a galactic telephone, see?” the old man replied, patting the giant hunk of metal fondly, causing a piece of hot-glued aluminum to clatter to the ground and a length of copper wire to pop into view. “Those generous fellas in the black car gave me all the money I needed to do the job.”

He was referring to the million dollar give-away that had taken place a few days before.

“A…galactic phone?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What is it supposed to do?”

“What’s it s’posed ta do, he says!” Mr. Goodrich laughed, wriggling out from under his invention and bounding to his oversized feet. “Why, ta call me ma, that’s what!”

“Call your what?”

“Me ma. Ye know, what some people call d’eir mother,” he replied, being sure to stress the “o” in “mother”.

Writing quality aside, what really turned the readers off of this story was the dialogue of Mr. Goodrich (which is significantly cleaned up in the version I’ve posted here, as I did some editing after the competition had ended). And looking back on it, I can see why. Every other word was a misspelling or included an apostrophe, forcing the reader to spend so much time trying to understand what the characters were saying that they couldn’t focus on the rest of the story.

Next on the list was “Obtrusive Dialogue Tags.” And I’ll be the first person to claim, “Guilty as charged.”

To be honest, I have never understood the problem with this one. When I was in college, my mentor, Dr. Robinson, hounded me about this, and I have been accused of being downright “allergic” to the word “said.” (You might notice there’s not one “he said” in the section from “Calling Ma”).

I think some readers take more issue with the dialogue tags than I do, and I would wager that it comes down more to style than to actual writing rules. (After all, this sort of dialogue is present in several of my favorite books, all traditionally published). To me, they aren’t a detractor, and actually help me to envision vocal tone and physical action better than a simple “he said.”

Then there’s phonetic spellings, (I sort of addressed this in the “casual dialogue” section), followed by using characters’ names too often.

I am fairly certain that I don’t use characters’ names too often in the actual speech section. Most of my characters are rather familiar with each other, thus making the use of direct address unnecessary. If anything, I’d say I used names most frequently in my earlier work, probably because of a fear that the reader wouldn’t know who was talking or being talked to. The exception to this that I can think of would be in The Four Stars, when King Ceallach regularly adds the name “Cloony” in his sentences directed at that character. But then, considering the fact that King Ceallach is, in fact, purposefully mocking the character and his name, the overuse makes sense.

Number 6 is “Having No Narrative,” and I would say it’s something I had more trouble with in my early writings than I do now, all thanks to Dr. Robinson, of course. I often write stories containing at least one character who has some sort of secret (often more than one character, but that’s beside the point), and somewhere during the plot, the truth is revealed in the form of a confession of sorts. There are also multiple instances in my books where characters read aloud from documents or books so that all the other characters involved can hear the truth or information at one time. When I first started writing, there were times when this could turn into several pages of strict dialogue/story-telling. When I went to college and took Narrative Writing from Dr. Robinson, however, he was quick to point out how monotonous this sort of writing can be and suggested that I include interjections and action into the mix to remind the reader that there are other characters (and events) present. Here’s an example from my retro fantasy novel, Prism World:

“But even with their powers, they were no match for our guns and our armies,” he read aloud. “The Mythikans, who call themselves the Nalivai, fought bitterly, but they were many tribes of many different minds. Not even those great mages could withstand our power. Little by little, we crushed out their villages, killing their men and women and capturing their children. Admittedly, they were frightening opponents with an ability to kill the like of which I have never before seen. Though they learned all too late how to defeat our armies, we saw in them a potential far greater than that found in a common soldier. In body and in mind they were human, but in power they were something else entirely.”

I glanced down at my scarred left hand as Leif read those words. So…even the masters said that, to some extent at least, Phantoms were human. But if we were human, why did they…? Leif continued to read and I turned my attention back to the book in his hand.

“Our last battle was fought at the foot of the Sajaro Mountains. Their army was small and weak, but their leaders were the most powerful of the Mythikans left alive. Elithe and Feron were their names, and I remember them well for they were the most noble and most courageous of all beings I had ever crossed paths with and, I dare say, ever will. Wielding the powers of lightning and of fire, they scorched the mountain with fervent passion, shaming our generals and standing at the very front of their army, prepared to defy us until their very last breaths…

The last three points in the list were “Having Every Character Sound the Same,” “Using Indirect Speech Poorly,” and “Spelling Everything Out in the Narrative.”

I’m gonna have to defer to my readers on that first one. Most people tell me that my characters are all pretty unique, though I’m sure I could do better.

As for indirect speech, I actually have become rather fond of it, considering the fact that if I spelled out every single conversation, I would need a whole library just to accommodate one story. I think the key here is to summarize the unimportant conversations and expand the ones that really affect character and plot development.

And then, of course, there’s that last one. Of these final three points, I would say the “Spelling Everything Out in the Narrative” is one of my greater weaknesses, and it goes back to something Dr. Robinson pointed out time and again both in my writing classes and in our writing club, the Rough Writers: show, don’t tell. One thing I have learned over time is that readers typically prefer to be able to see what is going on and make conclusions for themselves. Give them too little, and they’ll be confused and frustrated. Give them too much, however, and they’ll feel like you’re demeaning their intelligence.

Ultimately, dialogue is an art that has to be honed over time, but it isn’t something that any narrative writer should neglect or fear. Also, spending time actually listening to real life conversations and carefully considering the structure and words used will go a long way toward helping you become more familiar and comfortable with it.

I am interested to see what other people think about these points as well, and that includes readers as much as (and probably more than) writers. Are these all things that you notice when you’re reading/writing? Are they things that annoy you? Why or why not?

Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope to hear from you soon. Cheers!

 

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