Writing Dialogue: Giving your Characters an Authentic Voice
Dialogue fills our world as we chat with family and friends. Often we recognize excitement, sorrow, or frustration in the spoken words or the tone of a voice. Dialogue plays an essential role in giving depth to writing.
- “Yo, dude, snag me a Butterbeer while you’re there.”
- “I can’t believe you did that! You idiot.”
- “I just wondered if I could have my book back.”
Which line did Harry Potter speak?
The answer is number three. Dialogue should reflect a character’s personality and beliefs. Harry’s uncertainty and lack of self-confidence is shown in his speech. He would not call someone an “idiot” or say, “dude.” If you know your character’s hobbies, wishes, and desires before you write the dialogue, then you can ask yourself: Would he/she really say that?
Dialogue is used to move a story forward and relay information without using a chunk of narrative text. Dialogue can ground the reader in your scene. In an action packed scene with ten things happening, your dialogue brings more emotion and connects directly to the character’s thoughts. It can also help identify relationships between characters. Example:
A scene from Holes by Louis Sachar:
He could see six lizards. There were three on the ground, two on his left leg, and one on his right sneaker.
He tried to remain very still. Something was crawling up the back of his neck.
Three other counselors approached the area. Stanley heard one say, “What’s going–“ and then whisper. “Oh my God.”
“What do we do?” asked Mr. Pendanski.
“We wait,” said the Warden. “It won’t be very long.”
“At least we’ll have a body to give that woman,” said Mr. Pendanski.
“She’s going to ask a lot of questions,” said Mr. Sir. “And this time she’ll have the AG with her.”
“Let her ask her questions,” said the Warden. “Just so long as I have the suitcase, I don’t care what happens. Do you know how long . . . “ Her voice trailed off, then started again. “When I was little I’d watch my parents dig holes every weekend and holiday. When I got bigger, I had to dig, too. Even on Christmas.”
In this scene, deadly lizards surround a boy as his warden discusses his fate. The dialogue gives insight into the evil warden’s contempt for the child. By referring to his past history, when he was forced to dig holes as a child, the dialogue allows the reader to hear his resentment and hint of sorrow that led him to be so callous. The dialogue connects the reader to the scene more than if it was written all in summary text such as:
The warden watched the boy covered with lizards and remembered when he was forced to dig holes as a child. Resentment and anger filled his head, and he didn’t care what happened to the kid as long as he got his suitcase.
The dialogue brings us closer to the action to see and feel the scene directly through the character’s eyes and with their own words.
Dialogue tags are how you identify who spoke the dialogue. He said, she whispered, he asked. The key to dialogue tags is – less is more. Example:
- “I hate you!” He hollered loudly.
- Henry squeezed his fists and through clenched teeth he said, “I hate you.”
Dialogue tags should be invisible to allow focus on the words and action. Using SAID or ASKED without adverbs or fluff avoids distraction from the text. In the rewrite below, we can infer that the spoken words were ‘hollered loudly” by the action and words that were spoken.
- Henry squeezed his fists and through clenched teeth he said, “I hate you.” He threw a vase against the wall and stormed out the door.
A common mistake is to write: she giggled, she sighed, or she laughed such as: “You are so cute.” She giggled. BUT someone cannot giggle words or laugh words. Instead: “You are so cute.” She said as she giggled.
Dialogue makes your writing pop and gives your character a voice. Working dialogue seamlessly into your text is the key.
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