Thursday, 4 April 2013

Differentiating Through Dialogue

While there’s nothing wrong with making characters sound different by giving them specific accents, it’s not something you can do for every character in a story. Not unless your tale takes place at the United Nations.

And while giving them vocal tics is useful, yeah? It helps identify them quickly, yeah? It also gets old just as quickly, yeah?

Rather than using how people speak to make them stand out, it is much easier and more effective to use what they say rather than how they say it.


If one person is for the new helipad on the local hospital and one is against, and a third is only interested in getting the other two to stop arguing, then their individual positions on the matter is what marks them out.

In order for this to work you have to streamline the conversation a bit. In real life, people may go off on tangents or use chit chat to pad out lulls in a conversation, but doing that in fiction will only undo any work you’ve done to establish which character is taking which stance.

Obviously, you can still use dialogue tags and the characters’ names to identify them, but even if you do that, it can become confusing in dialogue heavy sections  if you allow them to go off-topic.

You don’t just want a reader to be able to follow who’s saying what if they carefully read every single word at full concentration, you want them to be able to get into the flow of things and automatically get a feel for who’s speaking.

By staying focused on the matter on hand, whether it’s robbing a bank or going shopping for shoes, and giving each character a distinct objective, who’s speaking will become much easier to work out.
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34 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The character's position in life can make a difference in the way they speak as well, like a lower-ranking officer compared to a general.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I think there can be plenty of reasons why someone might sound different, but there's no need to force it if there isn't one.

Heidi Mannan said...

Excellent points, my dialogue for D twin! I really love your graphic too. :)

Al Diaz said...

When I first read about giving characters's voices an accent according to their location, I thought that was the end of my writing in English. It's a foreign language for me and a miracle to ask me to include accents. Now your proposition is far more achievable. This I can do.

Nancy Thompson said...

Most writers can't pull off an accent effectively. It comes down to subtleties in the characters' vernacular.

The Wicked Writer said...

Good topic, brilliant post.

mooderino said...

@Heidi - we are in the same groovy groove.

@Al Diaz - Do it!

@Nancy - I find the phonetic spelling of accents is always a chore to read, even if it's done well.

mooderino said...

@Wicked - thanks.

Suzanne said...

Hi, found you via the A-Z. Enjoyed your post so much, I kept reading another one and another one :)Suzanne

mooderino said...

@Suzanne - thanks, glad you liked it. Wish you'd left a link so I could visit you back.

Juliet Bond said...

Loved your post, yeah? Great tips on tags vs. character traits. And thanks so much for visiting our blog!

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Sometimes when I'm having my work proofread, they point out talking heads. That's when I know I've got to start adding the whole "he said, she said" thing in.

Maurice Mitchell said...

This is a hard thing to do, but with accents and colloquialisms it's very powerful

M Pax said...

I took a workshop once where it was recommended to write out a lexicon for each character. Every job/vocation uses different words.

Sharon Himsl said...

Hi. I have this problem in my novel. I'm avoiding the phonetic spelling of accents, and use an occasional foreign word instead, but wonder if this is enough! Thanks for the follow at my site!

J Keith said...

I find accents for too many characters distracting in a novel, particularly when it serves no purpose other than to illustrate that the writer knows a few accents.
I do think someone's views on things would make them stand out more as a character than their accent. As far as going off topic, unfortunately, that is my bane in writing dialogue is I often let my characters go off topic

mooderino said...

@Julie - Thanks and you're welcome.

@Michael - it's when you have more than two people talking that it can get messy.

@Maurice - if you can do it without accents and colloquialisms it's even more powerful.

@M Pax - the problem comes when you have to do that over a long time. Makes the character a bit mechanical.

@Sharon - a really accurate representation of accent comes through syntax and rhythm.

@J Keith - there are no hard and fast rules, but the more threads you have the harder it is to keep track.

Leanne Dyck said...

Thank you for this helpful article.

Connie Gruning said...

Ya, I'm right there with ya! Excellent D!
Connie
Checkin' in from the A to Z Challenge.
Peanut Butter and Whine

mshatch said...

I was just reading somewhere else about how important it is for our characters to have distinctive voices. It is definitely something I'll be working on once I finish this first draft.

Nancy LaRonda Johnson said...

Watchu talkin' 'bout? Y'all caint never tell where I done come from if I given you a roadmap!

On the contrary, whereas one may distinguish a certain region of origin, a specific local could not be comprehended.

--Just excuse my silliness!

Jeremy Bates said...

true enough!
dialogue tags are great but best when used sparingly

Lynda R Young said...

Yes, and this also makes dialogue interesting!

Trisha F said...

Good point! I do love dialogue a lot. Also, some people just don't talk as much, and that's part of their personality, so you have to find other ways to make them "them" :)

Elise Fallson said...

Accents are really hard to pull off without sounding forced or contrived. But some writers can pull it off and it does add flavor to the writing.

Shannon Lawrence said...

True, too many accents or verbal tics can be obnoxious in a character. When it's hard for me to read through them, I'm removed from the story. There are so many ways to convey the character without it.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse

JennaQuentin said...

Great points. I recently wrote a novella whose main character was a dog. As she met other dog characters, it was interesting to listen for their voices and the difference in what they'd say, making a Great Dane speak in short gruff sentences, while a Yorkshire terrier yapped on and on.

mooderino said...

@Leanne - my pleasure.

@Connie - glad to have you here.

@mshatch - voice can come from more than how someone speaks. Attitude and focus help a lot in defining someone.

@Nancy - that would certainly mark them out in a crowd.

mooderino said...

@Jeremy - often tags come at the end of dialogue so if you can identify the speaker before then you're ahead of the game.

@Lynda - hopefully.

@Trisha - I'm mainly talking about how to identify the person speaking. You need to use other techniques to keep quiet characters present in the scene.

@Elise - Some people can do it really well, but more don't.

@Shannon - it can definitely pull you out of the story.

@Jenna - it helps to have different breeds to do that. If you had six Yorkshire terriers making each distinct is the tricky part.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post,Mooderino. I use a lot of dialogue tags, but in my last book I have tried to keep them to a minimum. I would love to give a few characters a unique style of speaking, but so far have not done so.

sassyspeaks said...

yep one of the hardest things to do in writing - distinguishing which character is speaking. Some good ideas here

mooderino said...

@Rachna - the reader being able to tell who's speaking immediately is improtant no matter how you achieve.

@sassy - thanks.

LD Masterson said...

Thanks, Mood. I'm always looking for ways to make my characters' voices more distinctive.

Also, please stop by my blog when you get a change. I left something for you there.

mooderino said...

@LD - will be over promptly (is it cake?)

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