Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ask O: Dialogue

Hi and welcome to Ask O Wednesdays! Don't forget to leave a question in the comments section and check out the end of this post for a FREE DIALOGUE WORKSHEET.

Today's question is, how do you make dialogue distinguishable between characters?

Have you ever read a book that really bored you? You couldn’t get into the characters, and you realized you’d zoned out by the end of a page? I sure have—my own writing!

In my early attempts at fiction, I remember reviewing a manuscript I’d put my heart and hard work into, only to realize…bluck!...this is terrible. But what was wrong with it?

Fortunately, soon thereafter I learned of the concept of distinguishable dialogue. Oh, so you need to be able to tell the difference not just from dialogue tags? Maybe that was the problem.

Since then I learned to ask myself this question: Can you tell who’s speaking without any tags? This has helped!

To accomplish this is not easy, but over the years, I’ve learned a remarkable secret weapon to make it easier: become the character!

I’ve heard that I need to know my characters. And yes, I agree. I fill out the character charts like everyone else. I can tell you what her goals and desires are. Whether she twirls her hair when she talks or keeps a mint in her pocket to share with her nephew—and what kind of mint it is (probably Mentos).

I highly recommend this path of character discovery. And I’m careful to apply it to dialogue. I add “How does she talk?” to my chart. “She has a southern accent, a slight tilt to her voice when she’s irritated, and a sniff which can mean she likes you or hates you.”

It’s good stuff and important, but it only takes me so far. If I forget one of my character’s carefully created dialogue traits, the spoken words easily drift toward the standard, indistinguishable talking-head version. Plus, implementing dialogue by using facts from a chart can create stilted, unrealistic conversations.

For my dialogue to sound authentic, to draw readers into the life of a real person (not just a character) I must become the character. That means I must tear down the walls between her and I, slather myself in her identity, and let her flow out of me. I actually close my eyes and visualize myself roaming around in her world. I don’t think, What would my character say? I am the character. I think, What would I say?

How do I “get there”? Well, the best comparison is to those times when I was incredibly connected to a character I read about in a novel. I felt her emotions, saw what she saw, heard what she heard. Cared deeply. In a way, I entered a new world where I no longer existed.

That’s where I try to be when writing dialogue. I do the hard work—filling out charts, analyzing motives, understanding desires—but when I sit down to write, I forget it all and let the words flow from her—I mean my—lips.

When I do this for each character, each character not only sounds unique, their words grow and change organically, becoming more realistic with each revision.

Try it. I'd love to hear how this works for you!

For a free Dialogue Worksheet visit

And be sure to leave me a question for next week's Ask O!