Dialog Is Tricky by DP Lyle
Dialogue can indeed be tricky. But, it can also do so much for your story. It can bring the reader more deeply into your fictional world, reveal character, move the story forward, expose thematic elements, and create a realism that allows the reader that “willing suspension of disbelief” so essential to effective story telling. That’s a lot of work. And it means getting dialogue right is essential.
One major problem is that it’s far too easy for authors to use their own voice and not that of the character when writing dialog. This is particularly true in first person narrations because the writer often identifies deeply with first person characters. This is fine IF the character is you, or very similar to you. If not, that’s a different story.
This leads to creating characters that “all sound the same.” In reality, good dialog should need no tags as the words and rhythm of the speech should allow the reader to immediately know who is talking. That’s the ideal, the goal. But that’s not as easy to do as it might seem.
So how do you do make each important character distinct? It requires living inside that character. Really getting to know them. Understanding how they think, act, and speak. Like making good chili, this takes time. It can’t be rushed.
Think about when you meet a new friend. You know that person on a fairly superficial level, at first, but maybe you later go to lunch together, and then spend more time doing various activities, vacation together, and gradually you become deeper friends. The person you thought you knew back during that first encounter is now someone else altogether. You know how they think, act, and speak. Can even anticipate what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. You now know them.
Same is true with fiction.
I, and many others, consider Elmore Leonard the master of dialog. If you haven’t read him and you want to write true dialog, you are short changing yoiurself. Each is a textbook on dialog. Many years ago at the now defunct Maui Writers Conference, I met Elmore and had the great pleasure of sitting and chatting with him for an hour or so on two different occasions. Hours I relish to this day. We talked about writing and story telling. I told him that I loved his characters and asked if he did character sketches or anything like that. He said no but that he would spend weeks, sometimes months, coming up with a name and once he had a name he knew the character. That struck me as pure genius. It was so simple, and so true. What he meant was that he lived with these characters in his head—-getting to know them—-and once he did, he had a name—and he knew them intimately. He knew who they were, how they would act and think, and how they speak.
This taught me two valuable lesions.
First was the importance of names. A name should reflect the character. Who he or she is. I mean, it you look at some of Leonard’s characters, Chili Palmer is not a neurosurgeon, he’s a loan shark. Linda Moon doesn’t sit on the Supreme Court, she’s a lounge singer.
The second lesion was the need for time to truly know any fictional character. A process that doesn’t happen overnight, in either real life or in the world of fiction.
I have always recommended writing first drafts fast and not sweating the small stuff. Don’t edit heavily until you finish. The reason is that your characters will evolve. The character you knew in Chapter 1 is very different from the one you know by Chapter 50. When you go back and edit, you have a better grasp of how that character acts, thinks, and talks. You will say to yourself, “No, she wouldn’t say that.” Happens all the time. More proof of the writing adage: Writing is rewriting. And this rewriting is often where the characters will distinguish themselves.
So relax, take some time, get to know your little imaginary friends and soon you will instinctively know how they speak.