He Said, She Said

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I talked about action beats. This week is all about what the characters actually say.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on various critique and share-your-work communities/forums, as I’ve probably said before. Dialog content was one of the biggest issues I saw with writers who were past the stage of getting the format right, and who already had decent grammar and sentence construction. Their characters sounded the same, using identical vocabularies and figures of speech, perfect grammar, complete sentences, and pretty formal language, in some cases. They also had wonderful manners, never interrupting, even when the other person spoke at length about something boring. So, that’s where we are now.

The next time you’re at the mall food court, eavesdrop on the people at the next table. I’ll bet you hear different speech patterns, vocabularies, and habits. Besides that, most people, when speaking casually, don’t bother with complete sentences, or even perfect grammar. And we interrupt each other constantly, and finish each other’s sentences, fill in words for each other – all the things Miss Manners would rap our knuckles for. To write good dialog, we need to incorporate all those things.

Let’s look at some examples:

“Hello,” Maria said.

“Oh, hello.” John sat at the next table. “Did you watch Two And A Half Men last night?”

“Yes, I did. I like the new episodes, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. What are you doing this weekend?” 

And so on. Boring!

Let’s fix it up.

“Hey, John! How’s it going?” Maria said.

“Hey, girl.” John sat at the next table. “Man, I watched Two And A Half Men-“

“I did too! I love it now that that arrogant asshat is gone-“

“Oh, yeah. Man had issues. Me and Jack and Jill are getting together this weekend for a Two And A Half Men marathon. Wanna come?”

OK, so it’s a poor example, and the characters have problems if they’re watching sit-com marathons, but you see the difference. The second example is more like something you’d actually hear people say. Complete with imperfect grammar, though it isn’t awful, interruptions, a little slang. It’s less stilted and formal than the first example.

One way to give each character a unique voice is to plan for it. Some people can do it off the top of their head, but it usually takes a little practice. When you’re planning your characters, deciding their physical descriptions and backstories, go ahead and give them a voice. Decide if they have a particular phrase they’re overly fond of, if they consistently misuse words, if they always interrupt.

While you’re at it, give them an accent or speech impediment, too, because we’re going to look at that next week!