Even if you are interested in learning new ways to think about your fiction writing, you probably hate to be ordered around. Because of that, I have avoided stating any rules or using "you" language in the following sections. You may find it tiresome to read so much about what I do—but I think that's better than telling you what to do.
Our ability to speak makes us human: language is our most important tool. New words come into our language constantly as we modify this tool to make it meet our needs. We use it to express feelings, to share experiences, to fight with one another, and to build bonds with those we love. Our actions are quite limited compared with our speech. We touch other human beings only rarely, but we talk to them all day long.
I believe that dialogue is the most important element of a book. Through dialogue, our characters reveal themselves. The closer their dialogue comes to mimicking real-world speech, the more a reader will live inside their story. Conversely, nothing jars a reader as much as unrealistic dialogue. It is well worth the time we spend getting it right.
In real life, we are often tongue-tied. We fail to say what we mean, and we start arguments because of poor communication. This reality should be echoed in fiction-writing as well, but it is one of the most difficult tasks an author faces. After all, being God in our world, we authors are glib and articulate about it. It's hard to remember that our characters are not at our level.
While it can be helpful to use dialogue to give the reader necessary information, it is important to remember that this is not the major purpose of dialogue. Dialogue belongs to our characters: they must be free to express themselves as they would if they were alive. We have all read stories, for instance, where two characters spend the first five or six pages carefully rehashing background information in a dialogue exchange. They sound like robots or tour guides. They communicate information extremely well, but they don't exhibit any personality doing so. Would any two real human beings stand there like that, explaining plot facts? Maybe, but the author has to work hard to make the situation believable.
Every character has his or her own ability to communicate, and most characters in a novel should not communicate as well as the author does. Even when characters intend to communicate information, they are more likely to do it badly than to do it perfectly. They are likely to assume that everyone knows certain things when these things are not, in fact, known; they are likely to assume that their meaning is clear when it is not. Some characters just don't have good verbal skills, and the author has to work with this. Otherwise, the characters will seem like shadows of the author rather than like people in their own right.
In The Hollow Kingdom, for example, Kate sees a monster, and she then tries to describe that monster to others. Now, I, the author, know exactly how to describe this monster, but Kate does not. Even though she is articulate and bright, she has been startled by what she has seen. She fails to convey her impressions clearly, and the reader has to wait until I describe the monster during narration before the reader knows how he looks.
Similarly, in Close Kin, a goblin guard makes an offhand statement that badly discourages Richard, a young goblin orphan. A copyeditor noted the ambiguity of the guard's statement and suggested that it should be changed. But this guard is communicating as well as most of us do much of the time. He is not thinking about the effect his words will have on others. God doesn't step in to clarify our ambiguous statements in the real world, and I didn't step in to clarify this one.
Our dialogue comes from our environment: we speak as we have been spoken to. The dialogue of a character has to reflect that character's upbringing and education. No simple peasant is going to use three- and four-syllable words. He or she won't have had the opportunity to learn those words. And few characters will speak as fluently as we do: most of them are not professional speakers or writers. It is highly unlikely that a character's speech will be flawlessly grammatical, either. I know mine isn't! Even well-educated people don't speak as precisely as they write.
The best way to learn how to convey the speech of characters who have educational backgrounds different from ours is to listen to the conversations that take place around us in the real world. I study speech patterns everywhere I go, picking up interesting turns of phrase and odd sentence structures; for instance, last week I was in Ireland and learned the phrase, "Fair play to you!" I try to be aware, as I am writing, of each character's educational level, and I keep that character's background in mind while formulating dialogue. I eliminate responses that are too polished or articulate if they fall outside that character's abilities.
Not long ago, I met a man who simply could not say the word died, even though that was the word he had clearly thought of. He was a tough, blunt person in other respects, but something in his Midwest background must have made saying died taboo. Each time he needed to describe a death, he was at a momentary impasse: he would pause or throw out filler words until his brain seized upon a different word, and then he would toss that word into the breach. Passed on was a favorite substitute.
We all have psychological reasons for becoming inarticulate or imprecise in speech, and so do our characters. If a character becomes emotional, his or her speech is unlikely to be fluent. If a character lies, that lie may not be convincing, and no one is comfortable talking about love or death. It is up to us authors to be in tune with our characters, to realize what bothers or scares them, and to judge how well they will be able to communicate about these things.
When I develop a character, I concentrate on hearing that character's voice. Is it squeaky, loud, drab, pleasant, rough, or sibilant? Then, when I am working with lines of dialogue, I listen to the dialogue in that particular voice. Everyone has a certain cadence or rhythm to his or her speech. Listening to my characters' breathing patterns determines how the dialogue should go, and telling the reader how the voice sounds adds interest to my book.
We all have our favorite words and our verbal eccentricities. Just as characters should have specific habits that make them unique, they should have specific speech patterns and verbal quirks as well. These things make them seem real. But, just as it is good to understand a character's nervous habits, it is important to have some idea where his or her quirks of speech come from, too. These things develop through environment and personality.
For instance, my novel, In the Coils of the Snake, has a character who is an elf lord. Because of the destruction of his culture, this lord is uneducated, and his powerful magic is intuitive. He is frequently surprised (often unpleasantly so) by the things his magic does or suggests that he do: he has no training that would explain to him why this course of action would be necessary. Therefore, he usually cannot explain his actions to others.
A goblin might not mind this so much, but elves are very sensitive. My elf lord finds this situation painful, and he has developed protective speech patterns to help him deal with it. He is quiet, for one thing, and not particularly forthcoming about himself and his motives. Moreover, he has the habit of echoing what a person has said or asked as a way to buy himself time in formulating the answer. This habit is subtle, and I doubt that any readers are aware of it, but I was aware of it as I developed him, and it is part of what makes him unique.
Writing dialogue is a bit like taking toddlers on a field trip: as my characters talk, I shepherd them along, heading more or less in the right direction. There are tangents and side trips along the way as their goals and my goals conflict.
Each time there is a pause in a real-life conversation, we face a choice, and there are many possible responses we could give. Overall, we have an idea where we want the conversation to go, particularly if we are transacting business, but even within that framework, we have wide possibilities. Our characters face this same choice, with the difference that we authors have extra goals for them as well. We know what they want out of a conversation, but we may want something beyond that: this may be the moment, for instance, when a bombshell should drop that will shatter a relationship entirely.
Regardless of our motives, we have to give our characters their freedom. Their dialogue should do just what our own dialogue does: express individuality and meet the speaker's goals. When I compose dialogue, I usually ask myself, "What will she say now?" Within the choices that make sense for that character, I then choose the one that best meets my goals as author. I don't impose my goals at the expense of my character's.
"Ideas about Composing Dialogue" copyright 2004 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.