Monday, August 29, 2011

Written Tips for the Spoken Word

I wrote murder mysteries for theatre companies for many years. I came up with a plot and characters and the actors would improvise the dialogue. Good fun for all, and I got a cheque. Score! Then I was commissioned to write a mystery play and panic struck. I would have to write the dialogue! I made my way through it and now, many years later, I find writing dialogue for my characters the least of my problems. Along the way I have learned a few things to keep in mind:

  • Vocabulary. Every character has his/her own way of speaking. A university professor will express a thought very differently than a teenager. A forensic investigator's vocabulary will be peppered with medical terms that an amateur detective would never use.
  • Colloquialisms. Know your location to give your dialogue the ring of authenticity. But beware; too many colloquialisms will alienate readers from other parts of the world.
  • Rhythm. Every character has their own rhythm of speaking. Some are staccato, some are sustained notes, some use long pauses for emphasis. Find each character's rhythm. It's there if you listen.
  • Humor. Never underestimate the power of humor. Characters who are capable of making a small joke or a clever pun are more multi-dimensional.
Creating realistic dialogue is easier for some writers than for others, but it might be one your most valuable tools to fleshing out characters. I try to remember that there is often a large difference between what my characters say and what they do. Some just lie. Some are incapable of lying. Dialogue is what makes characters come alive for both the author and the reader.

Have fun discovering your characters' voices. If you listen, they will come!


  1. Rhythm is probably one I haven't thought about, thanks Elspeth.

  2. Elspeth - Oh, the way a character speaks says so much about her or him! And what's interesting is that it's sometimes those subtleties (such as which vocabulary words a character chooses) that tells the reader more about the character than physical appearance does.

    Character personalities come out in their dialogue. For instance, my more timid characters and characters in subordinate positions use hedges (e.g. "I may be wrong, but could it be that....") or tag questions (e.g. "That gun wasn't there this morning, was it?"). My more self-assured characters or my characters who are in leadership positions are also more confident when they speak. They don't use as many hedges and tags. Oh, and then there's blustering, which sometimes hides insecurity or lies. So much to mine here for character development :-).

  3. Oh it's so lovely to read a post about writing good characterful dialogue. I think it can be one of the most difficult things to get spot on. And I do agree about rhythm being pretty important - it is so useful to use when trying to get a sense of colloquialisms too.

  4. Sound advice. Listening to our characters is so important.

  5. And over at my blog today, I'm talking about the author's voice, which isn't the same as character voice. Together, we made a good Voice post!

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. Sarah; I hope you find it helpful! Thanks also for being such a faithful commenter, I really appreciate it.

    Margot; You've shared such wonderful examples! Of course, I'm not surprised that your writing shows such thought and care.

    Pat; I'm so pleased you've found my post useful.

    Carol; You just said a mouthful.

    Terry; Don't you love it when things like this happen? I'll be sure to pop over and check out your post! You're right, of course, author's voice is a completely different beast.

  7. Excellent information, worthy of a university class.


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