Hearing Voices: The Dialogue of He Sez, She Sez

How many voices do you run across in a yarn? Typically you run into three types. Sure, we got types. And they’ve all got to play in order to make a story sing.

The most obvious type of voice is character, and most obviously expressed by what a character literally says. Plenty of authors complain about it, claiming they have heaps of trouble with dialogue. I haven’t made a study of it, but I’ve read plenty of bad dialogue. You’d think we’d all be better at it ’cause we seem to be surrounded by nonstop yapping. But it ain’t the case.

I don’t believe in rules and I don’t believe in absolutes when it comes to plenty of things, writing included. But there are plenty of principles and guidelines to rely on.

1. What does the character sound like, verbally?

If it’s a contemporary piece, he won’t be saying “swell” an awful lot. He probably won’t be speaking in complete sentences. And there’ll probably be a whole lot of contractions. The choice of words, including slang, should be guided by more than time period, but also by the age of the character. Throw together a 20-something dame going to college alongside an 80-year-old broad who worked stand-up and they’ll almost be talking two different languages. Think about diction. Think about formal versus informal.

2. What does the character want?

We’re always motivated. Some more negatively than others. But we’ve always got something going on, something stirring up within our excuse for gray matter. It goes a lot deeper and gets a lot more complex, but the idea’s as basic as that mug trying to win over that blonde at the bar. What will he say, exactly, and how will he say it? In turn, the lady in the case has her own agenda and will respond appropriate-like. Maybe she’s waiting for her boyfriend, her girlfriend, a blackmailer. Maybe she’s got a cold, a run in her stocking, lead poisoning, three months to live. All of that will feed her response.

3. What you don’t say says a lot

There’s a few basics that strengthen prose. Active choices, etc. Omit words such as “will” and “can.” Cutting to the chase usually provides a whole lot more pop. In a similar way, leaving things unsaid often gives dialogue a crisper quality.

Sarcasm, for example. When it fits the character, this can evoke plenty of attitude while striking a contrary chord. If someone pulls a bonehead move, and you want a character to respond, what resonates more? Sometimes it’s shorter and sweeter to hit the nail on the head, but other times there’s a strength in opposites. Here’s a flat example:

“So’s I fumble for my rod and go all nervous and winds up shooting myself in the foot.”

“That’s pretty stupid.”

Even the simplest, sarcastic response is an improvement of unparalleled heights:

“So’s I fumble for my rod and go all nervous and winds up shooting myself in the foot.”

“Brilliant.”

Maybe that’s no Pulitzer Prize example, but you catch my drift. Most of the time dialogue’s more powerful when a character gets their meaning across without saying what they mean.

Of course the bottom line is that it all has to play. The dialogue’s got to the fit the character and it’s got to serve the story. It’s got to move the plot along, set up or resolve a conflict, make for a little comic relief. It can introduce a new character or information or pivot the proceedings 360 degrees. Any or all of that.

Nothing to it, right?

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