Esacape Your Speaking Brain to Write Better Dialogue
by Jason Black
Last month's article covered tips for writing realistic
dialogue. That's essential, but it's only half the game. The other
equally essential half is writing distinctive dialogue. Your
characters cannot all sound like one another.
Ironically, while writing realistic
dialogue means engaging your speaking brain while you write, writing
distinctive dialogue means escaping your speaking brain. Learn to
escape the speech patterns baked into your own brain, or your
characters will all sound like you. Here are three methods for
escaping your speaking brain.
Method #1: Use the
Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has
different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and
Caribbean English. Even within a country, different parts have their
own sounds and patterns. America has many linguistically distinct
regions within it, as is true for Australia and the rest. Imitate
people you know who didn't grow up where you grew up.
But take care; characters who come
from a place with a well known speaking style must then exhibit that
style. You can't tell the reader that a character comes from
Ireland only to have him greet another character with a hearty
Australian "Gíday, mate." Learn the patois of the region the
character is from enough to imitate it well, or no one will believe
in the character.
Method #2: Create
Most people have verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy
once who would say "whenever" in places everyone else would simply
use "when." When I was about 12 years old, I developed a habit of
inserting the word "basically" into nearly every sentence that came
out of my mouth. For each of your characters, create a particular
phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately
understandable, and make sure nobody else in your book uses it too.
Method #3: Formal,
informal, and slang.
Some people are very formal in their speech, some are more casual,
and some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality
to draw from, and the degrees of formality are excellent tools for
showing a characterís level of education and social background. Yes,
itís stereotypical that upper-income people with more education tend
to speak more formally, while lower-income people with little
education speak in a streetwise vernacular. But the stereotype
wouldnít exist if it werenít more or less true. Consider the
immediate difference between "Would you be so kind as to get me a
drink," and "Yo, my man, grab me a beer!"
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009
Further, you can create very
distinctive and believable characters by playing with the
characterís level of formality in different scenes. Imagine you have
a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard
to complete college and become an upper-middle class professional.
This person may well use different speech patterns at work than
when hanging out with his neighborhood pals. Showing the dilemma of
trying to fit into two different worlds through his speech patterns
is infinitely more effective than describing the dilemma in
Put them in practice.
Now that you've got those three methods, how can you use them? Itís
great if you can work out each characterís manner of speech before
you write the novel so as to get it right from the beginning. If you
like to create extensive character biographies beforehand,
incorporate these methods into your novel planning process. You
might even write sample scenes for your characters just to practice
But pre-planning doesn't work for
everyone. Many writers only come to know their characters in the
process of writing the books. If that's you, apply these methods as
you revise your first draft. When the first draft is done and you
know how the characters sound, take some time to list out each
character's verbal mannerisms. Things like "sounds like my friend
Larry," or "says 'really really' instead of 'very'."
Compare your lists to make sure they
arenít too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have
a good handle on each characterís voice, review the whole book and
adjust every line of dialogue to fit with each speakerís verbal
Dialect versus accent: a
word of caution.
There is a difference between how people sound when they talk and
the words they choose to say. The physical sound--how they shape
their vowels and so forth--is accent. The patterns of words they use
is dialect. As an author, you must control both.
Dialect is straightforward, because
itís all about word choice and order. Accent is harder, because it
can only be represented on the silent page through tricks like
intentional misspellings. This can be very effective if you're
careful. It's easy to push accent into the land of ugly caricatures
and racist portrayals, however unintentional. Few things will turn a
reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.
When you master the techniques of realistic and distinctive
dialogue, you'll create characters who readers can believe in. You
will also have given yourself another tool for showing--rather than
telling--what your characters are made of. After all, we reveal
ourselves not only through what we say, but how we say it.
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Jason Black is a freelance
book editor who actively blogs about character development. He
recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers
Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at