Hello again, readers! Welcome back to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! I hope you all had an enjoyably decent or better weekend. I did. Saturday saw me spending several hours at work on the paperback edition for Shaodow of an Empire, which, as I reported in Saturday’s post, is now in the cover stage! Excitement!
That and I went to a Scottish festival and watched some caber-tossing, which is always fun to see.
Then this morning I heard of “BookTok” for the first time, which is apparently this (for now) grassroots part of TikTok where people review books, often (at least from the article I read) titles that aren’t immediately new or known (which was how one publisher found out about it: they saw massive sales for a book they were no longer promoting and discovered #BookTok had promoted it). Of course, it’s probably about to stop being grassroots, since according to the article I read now that the major publishers are aware they’re looking into how to “use” BookTok to their advantage, but it’s still neat. In the meantime, here’s hoping one of those BookTok reviewers decides to give a copy of Axtara – Banking and Finance a shot!
Anyway, let’s get down to business, shall we? Today, I want to talk about dialogue. That’s right, the stuff characters say and speak.
Specifically, I want to talk about—as the title of today’s post indicates—keeping it unique. Something that, if I’m honest, a lot of writers struggle with. Even published ones.
But … it’s not just the fault of the writers. Comically enough, this weekend I saw a post on a subreddit asking people what they wanted from their books, and the number-one result at the time I looked was “Good dialogue.”
Hmm … Some of you might be thinking close to what I did when I saw that post, which was “So I guess a lot of books fail at this?” And yes, that was certainly part of my thought process. But there was a second part to it as well, something that I’ve only learning in writing and releasing books on my own. But for it to make sense, we’re going to need a little background first.
Everyone comes from somewhere different. That’s just life is. Even a next-door neighbor can have a wildly different experience in life based on upbringing, income, their immediate family, etc. In other words, even inside what would largely be called “the same culture” people can have vastly different experiences and upbringings.
Okay, so far, pretty clear, right? What does this have to do with dialogue? Well, there’s a … shall we say … danger. To never being exposed to any sort of different “culture” of speaking and interpersonal interactions. The danger being the assumption that whatever use of language we, as an individual, grew up experiencing and ensconced in, is “correct.” And anything that isn’t in replication of this is “incorrect.”
Let me give you a direct example from something I wrote. I have had characters before speak with fantasy versions of Aussie accents (Australia). It’s part of their character (in fact, one started as a generic “US cowboy” before making the change all on their own, and it suited them so well I went back and rewrote all their early dialogue to fit the change), and it makes them fairly distinct. Now, naturally, I had to do some amount of research for this. Wrote, it, stamped it done, moved on.
I got a comment a year or two later, online, from someone who identified themselves as from “Western Australia.” They wrote this very long comment about how they were from Australia and while they liked the character, “no one” talked like the character did or used the sayings/colloquialisms that they did (even singling out a few in particular). They directed a part of their comment to everyone else, saying something to the gist of ‘this dialogue is a farce, don’t trust this guy.’
My response? I loaded up a few of my favorite youtube channels, created by a bunch of folks from Eastern Australia, about off-roading. I watched, and it took all of about five-ten minutes for one of these youtubers to use, in casual conversation, one of the very sayings this commentator claimed wasn’t real or used. And they kept using them. It wasn’t unique to the one channel, either, because it showed up on other people’s channels.
I tell you this to make a point: The problem wasn’t that the dialogue wasn’t realistic or using sayings in the proper way. The problem was actually with the reader. The reader had a very closed view of what “realistic dialogue” could be. Granted, yes, it was close to probably what they used daily, but different, but that only highlighted and made more obvious to them that it was different.
This reader? Not the only reader I’ve had before, or seen critiquing other works, criticizing dialogue as “unrealistic” when in fact the truth isn’t quite so simple.
This leads to a sort of catch-22 conundrum. Readers want unique dialogue. But readers also can react badly to well-written unique dialogue because their own experiences are limited. For example, a reader may say they want someone to speak like a sophisticated debonair, but then when confronted with what debonair language sounds like in a setting (real or imagined) react poorly because it doesn’t mesh with their own mental “image” that they brought to the story. This is true for both fiction and non-fiction. Again, as we’ve said before on this site, “reality is unrealistic.” If someone shot a film set in 18th century Victorian England, for example, and made a concerted effort to make the accents as realistic as possible, well … it definitely would not sound like what most viewers would expect (if you’re curious about just one facet of this, take a look at this video examining the London accent from the 14th to 21st centuries).
“But surely,” some of you might be saying. “This won’t matter as much if we’re writing fiction, right? Or especially if we’re writing Science Fiction, or Fantasy, where the world may not reflect or even resemble our own?”
Well … in theory, yes. But in truth … there are readers who are going to judge your second-world fantasy setting on their own personal rules of what language should sound like, nevermind that you’re telling a story about three distinct social castes of mermaids living on a titanic underwater reef.
And you know what? Tough. They can deal with it. That’s really the best you can do here. You can’t sit down and realistically plan a book around the one person who grew up hearing that “ain’t ain’t a word” (despite it being in common parlance for over four-hundred years now) or with a deep-rooted belief even more individual. You just can’t.
Yes, there will be readers no matter what that decide that your dialogue is unrealistic for one reason or another. It’s unavoidable. I can’t even number the count of popular, widely-read books I’ve seen debated online where one group of readers love the dialogue on display while another group despise it.
Now, does this mean that there aren’t books with weak dialogue? Of course there are. But most everyone agrees on those. And yes, we’re going to talk about that—actual weak dialogue—in a moment. And then good dialogue. But I wanted to start with this so that the first time you see a debate about your dialogue, or someone saying that it wasn’t real, you know to think on it and take with a grain of salt. For some readers, dialogue just isn’t realistic unless everyone talks just like them.
Okay, so now that we’ve waxed and warned on that a bit, let’s talk about some actual meat, shall we? What goes into writing good dialogue? What makes dialogue good or bad? When we write dialogue, what should we strive for?
Well, the first thing that should be mentioned, I feel, is that good dialogue isn’t flat. It’s … rough.
Okay, I realize that may sound a little strange. So let me explain a little. Flat dialogue is dialogue that clearly only exists to pass information to the reader or between characters. If you’ve ever read a non-fiction statement or summary about something that feels clinical and analytical, that’s flat. It’s writing that’s been stripped of personality and character because it’s not supposed to have any.
However, character writing should have character. Ergo, it shouldn’t be flat. Even if our characters are telling someone else about the weather outside, it shouldn’t feel impersonal. It should feel like something that character would say.
Yes, dialogue can still be about conveying information to the reader, as long as the characters are included in that (no “as you know”), but it can do so through the character’s own words, and the character’s own insights. And if you want to present something to the audience but don’t have a reason for the character to state it to the audience, don’t have them state it to the audience. Find another approach, maybe one that isn’t dialogue related.
But if it is, don’t let that dialogue be flat. Flat dialogue isn’t just boring and expository, it’s also confusing.
See, another common dialogue problem is when all the characters sound the same. Dialogue that is flat, that only exists to convey information? It falls into that issue quite often. After all, it’s hard to say who said what if all the dialogue sounds like it came from the same bland source.
And dialogue shouldn’t sound like that. Gather ten people into a room, and ask them to tell the same story that they’ve just read from a piece of paper, and each of them will tell it in a different way. They’ll use different words, different phrases, and different expressions (colloquial and physical). Each individual will give their own words their own flavor.
Our dialogue should reflect that. Or rather, the dialogue we write for our characters should reflect that. It should reflect our characters mannerisms, personality, and attitudes. Good dialogue, well-written, should represent the characters that speak it, so much so that after a while our readers should be able to tell what lines of dialogue go with what character most of the time without looking at the dialogue tags.
I’m actually going to spend a bit on this one, because it’s a bit trickier than it sounds. I have seen books and stories before where the “solution” the author took to making their dialogue “distinct” was to make each character as … shall we say stereotypically different in spelling and speech patterns as possible? We’re talking dropping letters, dropping words, or worse.
Now look, accents are a thing, yes, but there’s so much more flavor to speech than the obvious or the dramatic. Diction, for example. Word choice says a lot about a person, and can be used quite carefully to convey character and personality. Use of colloquial sayings alongside diction too, can give dialogue a lot of “pizzazz” that makes it stand out from one character to another.
This isn’t to say that you can’t use accents to give dialogue a bit of spice, but they’re like salt: Some is fine, but too much is really too much (as always, however, there may be moments where you want a lot of salt), and there are other ways to bring a character’s personality across through their language.
Are they verbose? Are they to the point? Are they less-guarded with their speech around certain characters, but more polite to others?
All of these—and more—can and do go into how someone speaks. If someone were to write a story, or even a transcript about the people in your life, you’d quickly notice that each of the people around you speaks in a different manner. It might be because of their job, their personality … any number of factors, but all of those things impact the way each of them speak and would be recorded.
So as it is in the real world, so should it be in our writing. When we sit down and brainstorm our characters, one thing we should think about is how they speak. Are they polite? Casual? Precise? Are there any sort of phrases or words that would have been more common in parlance from their upbringing. We need to think about the how of our characters speaking, as in “How have they spoken for most of their life?”
Now, a warning with this, again. If you go too far, you might end up with a stereotype. Even an in-universe one. Which … I mean, you can use that in your setting. Sands, I’ve read more than one fantasy where a character played up their background in order to put on a stereotype front around someone that would be instantly deceived by it. But even with that, I issue a caution that stereotypes are sort of culture boiled down to a few lumps. You characters should be more than that in their dialogue.
Okay so what else makes good dialogue? Well, a big one that comes up more than you’d think is characters not sounding identical.
This is a bigger issue than a lot of people would think, but your characters shouldn’t sound like clones of one another. Or indistinguishable. Especially if one or more of them is a kid.
Sands and storms, I know writing children is tricky, but I have read some really badly-written ones before that sounded identical to all the adults around them (who all already sounded the same). Children use different words than adults. They explore concepts differently (not straightway in a more simple fashion either, just … sideways). They shouldn’t be speaking like an adult does.
For that matter, your character dialogue shouldn’t be interchangeable either. Sure, circumstances might dictate some briefness or similarity, but if all your characters sound the same all the time … that’s not good dialogue.
Let your characters character be on display when they talk. If three characters are, for example, brainstorming, make sure that the ideas they come up with feel like they came from the appropriate characters, even if the reader wouldn’t know that. It’s consistency on your side, and it’ll help with keeping things distinct.
Now we’ve talked about a few things here that go into crafting unique dialogue, but I do want to touch on one more thing that goes into it: Lack of speaking, and non-verbal cues. Which yes, sounds a bit strange at first. After all, we’re sort of “trained” to think of dialogue only as speaking.
But in the real world, non-verbal cues are a part of any conversation. Crossed arms. Narrowed eyes. A lifted eyebrow. A shake of the head. This, in a way, is dialogue, and it’s just as character specific as something like work choice. Sometimes, our characters don’t need to speak in order to say something, and if we can convey that we should. I’m not saying we fill our dialogue tags with adverbs, or even a lot of useless gestures, but that when writing a conversation between characters, we should remember that something like silence or a nod can sometimes speak volumes that a few words cannot. They can be ways to show emotion or attitude, rather than having a character confirm it through words of implication.
These still count as “dialogue.” And again, it’s varied and individual for each character, or should be.
All right, we’ve hit a few different things here, but by now there should be a common thread woven through all of them that you’ve recognized. Let the character be the character. That’s it. When they speak, let them speak as they would, not as someone else. If they don’t have enough character to speak as themselves, or if you as the creator aren’t certain how to give them that freedom, then practice at it. Develop their character a little more. Write some dialogue, and don’t stop until it feels like this character wrote it rather than you.
Oh, and one last thing.
If you’re writing contemporary fiction. IE set in today’s world, yadda yadda, and you’re writing a child or teen character … Do some research on the lingo. There are few things that ruin the illusion of a carefully crafted character than having them use slang or lingo that is decades out of date. I ran into this one just last week, actually, in a modern webcomic, where a young kid, maybe 8-9 used slang that hasn’t been popular in, according to a quick Google, at least forty years. It was incredibly jarring.
So yes, let a character be a character. But if that character is “modern ______” do some research on what that actually is. Don’t just plug in words or phrases from the last time you interacted with that sphere. The moment you get something wrong, it will be noted.
But again, there’s a catch there. What if you’re just writing another region or school of slang? Every place is different, and you won’t be able to please everyone. But though you can’t, it’s still worth it to at least spend the time pleasing those the story is written for.
Right, so there’s one last thing I want to bring up here. This is a big one I see with a lot of young or new writers, and I see arguments over it from time to time. Are you ready? Here goes:
Dialogue does not have to be grammatically correct.
It’s true. People don’t follow the rules of grammar when they speak. We fragment. We mangle words. We end our sentences on prepositions. We contract when we shouldn’t and don’t contract when we should.
And guess what? Niether should your characters. When they speak anyway.
Prose? Description? Yeah, keep that clean, even if flavored for a point of view. But when a character talks? They can break all the rules they want. Dialogue doesn’t have to follow the rules if the character doesn’t want to.
Note the “character” bit of that. Some characters will be prim and proper with their dialogue (and breaking out of that can show the seriousness or shock of a situation, mind). Others will be relaxed and casual, or even “mock” proper grammar and speech when they want to.
But this is a tool. Dialogue does not need to follow the conventions of proper grammar if the character themselves wouldn’t. This doesn’t mean we want to read a million “ums” and “uhs” but at the same time, we shouldn’t feel concerned if someone says “You can’t end a sentence in a preposition?” because people do that all the time.
Now, what you write should still be readable. That much is obvious, unless of course that’s part of a joke, gag, or tool. But while dialogue can break the rules, don’t forget that it’s primary purpose is to convey information, not confuse.
Okay, so let’s recap. Don’t do flat dialogue. Let your characters live through how they talk. Let their speech be theirs. let them use their own words, their own colloquialisms and phrases. Don’t overdo it, but don’t make your characters identical to one another in words and tone either.
Again, the best dialogue is that which is distinct enough in diction and phrase that readers can tell who the speaker is even without dialogue tags. It takes work and practice to deliver that sometimes, but the result is a character’s language that never dulls or falls flat.
So work on keeping your dialogue unique, on letting your characters express themselves as themselves. And don’t forget that dialogue often doesn’t play by the rules. It fragments, it breaks common courtesy. So keep that in mind, and go let your characters speak for themselves.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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