Saturday, 9 July 2011

Memorable Characters Part 3

This is my third blog on writing memorable characters, and deals with dialogue.

Dialogue is the voice of your characters, and along with their actions and thoughts, tell the story of who they are and what they want. So it’s important to make every word of their dialogue count. 

In real life, day to day conversations can be monotonous. Here is a sample of 4 lines of dialogue between 2 characters:

“You’re late.”
“I know.”
“What happened?”
“My car broke down.”

Everyone has conversations like these. But they don’t belong in your book. 

Not only is this passage mind-numbingly boring, but the reader has no idea who’s talking. Two women? Two men? What is their relationship? How old are they? 

But it’s only 4 lines of dialogue, you could argue. The writer needs more time.  

You don’t have time, and neither does the reader. He could throw your book against the wall because it’s taking too long to get into, and open someone else’s book. He could watch television, listen to his Ipod, go to the movies, etc.  The competition for the reader’s time is fierce. You want the reader to connect to your characters as soon as possible, so they can form an emotional bond. And remember, every word of your character’s dialogue counts, since it tells the story of who they are, and what they want. Your characters need to leap off the page, and entertain. 

Okay, then just add speech tags. He said, she said. Then at least we’ll know who’s talking.

Yes, you could do that, but this is an exercise in dialogue, and a wise editor once told me that your dialogue should be so powerful, it should be able to reveal personality and character without using speech tags. Huh? 

So let’s try again. Same basic conversation, but with more powerful dialogue. And still no speech tags.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Sure, I can tell time.”
“Your father’s going to freak. Did you run out of gas again?”
“Cool your jets, Ma. My wheels broke down, so I hitched a ride.”

Ah ha. Now we have emotion, and a lot more information about who these characters are. A mother and son (you could argue a daughter, but the fact that he’s hitchhiking implies he’s male). The mother sounds upset. The son sounds disrespectful. He drives a car, which makes him a teenager or young adult. He has a habit of running out of gas, which means he’s not terribly responsible or organized. This isn’t the first time he’s been late, and he’s in trouble with a character who isn’t even in the scene – his father. 

Now this is a story going somewhere.

Try writing a few dialogue passages without speech tags or action beats. It's a great way to power up your dialogue and reveal character.


  1. Love this advice...and this blog. You have a very clear, succinct way of passing on useful information. Subscribed! :)

  2. Thanks, Susannah, I appreciate your comments! Welcome aboard:)

  3. Wonderful advice about a writing essential that is too often left dangling in the land of mediocre should a writer be under the erroneous assumption that dialogue doesn't carry the weight of other story elements.

    And, absolutely, ditto what Susannah said :-)

  4. Thanks for your comments, Barbara!