If you’re still lacking confidence with punctuation in dialogue, then it is perhaps best to first read through Writing Dialogue Part One. But if you’re now in search of some flesh and a soul to add to those bones of discourse, look no further.
First of all, it is important to understand that you should never attempt to recreate natural speech. Your ears have grown used to filtering out all the stutters, repeated words and ums and ahs and so forth. If you record a conversation and play it back, you will see how ridiculous it would be to replicate it in text, and how it would serve only to ruin the experience of your readers. If your character is one who does in fact stutter, then let him, if they are scared, then you may want to show that too and there is no harm in that (“S-s-s-s-s-swamp monster!”). But to litter every utterance with these can dilute your characters and your story rather than offering any sort of realism or depth.
So what should you include in dialogue? Speech can do important things: progress the plot of your story, subtly or obviously, slowly or suddenly; it can offer insight into a character’s motivations and personality; and it can describe the world of your story and the things within it. Portraying these through speech as opposed to directly in your narrative makes the story and world come to the reader more naturally, as if observing the events rather than being told about them. As I’m sure you’ve heard at some point: ‘Show them, don’t tell them.’ There is no denying that some things are worth leaving to the narrative, particularly the description of scenery, but if characters and their personalities are an important aspect of your story, then the reader cannot be spoon-fed the information about them, but must discover them, uncover them, through assessing their speech and actions.
So, you now have a character who speaks naturally enough for the purposes of a story; you know what you want them to say and you know, from Part 1 of this article or elsewhere, how to order, style and punctuate their speech. Now, I would say, we have both the bones and the flesh of our dialogue. What’s missing? I’d like to call it the soul. You want your characters to have habits, things that make them unique and memorable. Many people overuse things like nail biting, finger tapping etc. These are fine but are hardly unique and if you keep on mentioning them then they’ll become boring to read quite quickly. The best way, in my opinion, to get your character to stand out as an individual is by giving them a unique voice. This can be achieved by asking yourself some questions about your characters that should influence the way they speak:
Where are they from? – You can try to portray accents, but don’t feel you have to overdo it. “Yes, I will go with you.” “Aye, I’ll join ya.”
In which social class do they belong? – The rich will often, though not always, be better educated and therefore will have a more extensive vocabulary, use more accurate grammar, and may have different motivations to a poorer character.
As touched on above – What are their motivations? Do they talk of food a lot? Money? Women? Men? Do they talk as if craving acceptance? In such a case their speech may be littered with apologies. Or perhaps they crave power and so their speech is heavy with orders with seldom thanks. I have a character in my novel – a leader – who gives orders but is very particular about people thinking him kindly and so will say “Will you fetch me my armour? As opposed to “Fetch me my armour.” or even “Fetch me my armour, please.” The last is still polite and acceptable, but this is a man who asks and doesn’t order, even though it is clear that his armour will be fetched without question.
Are they religious? If so they may utter quick prayers and ask for forgiveness. Do they swear and, if so, how much? I have characters who wouldn’t dream of swearing, some who do but have limits and others who go all out. People have their favourite curses too, so keep track of who uses what.
Some people just have habits in their speech. I have a character who is likely to start an exclamation with the word ‘and’. “And I should hope so!” rather than “I should hope so.” I have a character who often starts or ends speech with a ‘hah hah’ (another point should be made that people laugh differently – haha or hah hah or even a tee hee).
What have they been through? Most stories have periods of turmoil. Long gone events will no doubt shape speech and habits in some way, but recent events will too and often more explicitly.
To whom are they speaking? A lord will talk to his king differently than he would to his servant. A mother will talk differently to her children than to others. These are obvious examples, but people are likely to alter their choice of words, and how they say them, for different networks – it’s always worth thinking about who is on the receiving end of speech, and also who else is present.
This list could go on and on, but I feel my point has been made – there are endless intricacies in speech that can be used effectively without corrupting the important dialogue being spoken. Think about every detail of your character and then think how each detail may come across in speech. Implement this into your dialogue and you readers will know your characters that bit better.
Thank you for reading and I hope you found this article useful as it is something I am very passionate about in creative fiction. Please leave a comment if you have anything you would like to add or ask, and subscribe if you would like updates on our work.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to read Part One of Writing Dialogue (Punctuation in Grammar). And here are some other articles you might find useful: Establishing Characters and How to Physically Write a Novel or Short Story.