LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS TELL THE STORY

Dialog: it’s the part of the story that makes the characters come alive on the page. When characters speak and how they speak create the atmosphere of the story.  Stories without dialog are told, not shown.

So, you, the writer, have to know your characters well enough so that when they speak, they sound like real people talking the way real people do.

What’s the purpose of dialogue, anyway. Is it to advance the story? Is it to reveal the characters? Is it just to break up the page?

I guess it’s all of those. Dialogue can be used to move the story along. But beware of the dialogue that is used to have one character tell another things that the second character already knows but that the reader doesn’t.

For example:

Smith said to Jones, “I’m glad you’re in on the Alpha Project, Jones. The Alpha Project is definitely the future of communication. You have the skills we need to capture the evil one.  I saw the way you managed that matter with the doctor, and I know you won’t have a problem with the evil one.. Our plan is to use you to scare him into letting himself be caught.”

It would certainly be much more interesting if we saw the way Jones managed the matter with the doctor and why he (or she) isn’t afraid of the evil one. In fact, all of what Smith said could be action, not dialogue. This kind of dialogue makes the reader yawn.

You need to be aware of who your characters are and how they talk. I’m not a fan of dialect and will usually bypass books where the characters obviously talk like people who live in Appalachia or Louisiana. I think the writer can convey the way the characters talk without resorting to dialect.  However, if you’re going to set a story in the deep South, for example, you may have to use some dialect. Just, for my sake, try to minimize it.

But you have to know your characters well enough so that they not only sound like real people but people who are different from one another. I have some difficulty with the male protagonist, Greg Lamont, in my Florida series. He’s a police detective and not a great talker, but I find myself having him talk more than he should.  He sometimes sounds like a woman, and I need to pare down his dialogue.

Andi Battaglia, Greg’s partner, talks more, probably because she’s female. She talks a lot when she’s nervous, kind of a character flaw. I need to keep that in mind when I’m writing.

There are differences of opinion among writers as to whether to use “he said,” or “she said,” to forget them entirely, or to always, or most of the time, indicate some action that identifies the speaker. I know I have read passages from writers, where there is not even a “he said” or “she said,” which means the reader must guess which of the characters said what. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes the reader has to go back to check who was last identified as the speaker and count down.

Using something that indicates how the words were spoken or using an action to go with the dialogue is a good way to get the reader to follow. For example, “He said with a forced smile;” “She said as she picked up the cup of tea;” “He said, shifting in his chair.” But you can’t always do that, and sometimes I find myself so carried away with what the characters are saying that I don’t look at them as they’re talking.

You can reveal a lot of information about your characters simply by the way you have them speak.  I’m always learning new ways to use dialogue.  What are your thoughts about dialogue?

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About casojka123

I grew up in New York and moved to California when I was in my twenties. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and when I returned I got a master's degree from the University of Southern California. I worked as the administrator in a public law office, and now I write mystery novels of the "whodunit", multiple suspect, police procedural variety. I live in a small town in Southern California with my husband and two dogs.
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2 Responses to LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS TELL THE STORY

  1. ambfoxx says:

    Great post. Expository dialogue drives me crazy–people telling each other what they both already know in order to tell the reader. And the author who never identified who was speaking? I’m not reading her books again. Nor the author who phonetically wrote out a character’s British regional dialect instead of simply saying she had a Yorkshire accent. I’ll use regional vocabulary, but I think that’s as far as I need to go for characters’ accents after I’ve said where they’re from. I’m revising now, and noticing where I can balance out speech tags (she said, he asked) with action tags (he avoided her eyes and fidgeted) and where none are needed for a line or two.

    Like

  2. marilynm says:

    I agree about using action as dialogue tags, but leave off the he or she said. The action connected with the dialogue is enough.

    Like

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