Being a Better Writer: Fast and Slow Character Dialogue

Welcome back writers to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer, your source for writing advice, guides, and tips.

Well that sounded weirdly canned, didn’t it? Either way, we’re here, it’s Monday, and that must mean it’s time to talk writing.

Almost. We’ve got some news to tackle first. Starting with the elephant in the room: Starforge releases next week. Yeah, that’s right. It’s almost here. November 29th people! The countdown clock is nearing zero!

By the way, one more teaser dropped over this last weekend; a fun nod to trailers of film and game, but in literary form. You can take a look at it here, and don’t worry. I didn’t include any spoilers in my trailer. Just enough clips of the insane amount of action in Starforge to tease.

Speaking of teasing, some of you long-timers may recall that the finale in Colony (the first book of the trilogy) was a staggering 90,000 or so words (roughly 300 pages) worth of action. Well, Starforge‘s is something like—depending on where you decide the finale of the “finale” begins (there’s a lot of action in this final book, since it’s wrapping it all up) is around 171,000 words, almost 600 pages worth of chaos.

Don’t worry. As with Colony there’s spots in there to catch your breath and take a minute. And that’s far from the only action in the story, either. Death, destruction, peril, loss … it’s all in these pages.

You get the picture. Now to other related news before we move into today’s BaBW: Next Monday there will not be an installment of Being a Better Writer. Instead, I will be doing a Reddit AMA due to Starforge launching the following day. So, similar to Being a Better Writer, but instead I’ll be taking live questions from Reddit. There will be a link here on the site to the AMA when it goes live, so just poke your head in here around 12 noon MST (more notes on time as the day approaches) and bring some questions about Colony, Starforge, Axtara, writing … whatever!

All right, and with that, and a reminder that if you’re in the US, this weekend is Thanksgiving (so I hope you all have a great one) let’s get down to business. Today’s BaBW is a bit on the shorter side, since I’m itching to get right back to copy-editing on Starforge. But it’s one that I’ve wanted to have a small discussion about for a while, especially as I ran into someone a few months back that was arguing against it without realizing how terrible an idea it was.

What we’re talking about today is character dialogue and its relationship to grammar. Specifically with regards to situation, but also with regards to characters themselves and how they act and speak.

So to start, right below the jump I’m going to post two sentences. I’m not going to ask much except that you read them and have them both in your mind. Got it? Alright, hit the jump and let’s start!

“Look, I just don’t think it’s a good idea right now,” Sahmi said, walking quickly toward the exit. “We’re understaffed, and overbudget, and now you want us delivering daily updates to Tonsey? It’s just … not workable!”

There’s one. Now read the second.

“Look I just don’t think it’s a good idea right now,” Sahmi said, walking quickly toward the exit. “We’re understaffed and overbudget, and now you want us delivering daily updates to Tonsey? It’s just not workable!”

Little bit different of a picture it forms, doesn’t it? Did the “image” of Sahmi you’d formed in your head change between those two instances? It should have. Why? What’s different about the second?

Well, one answer, and the one that spawned this post, would be that the second quote is “grammatically incorrect” and needed additional commas to separate things out.

But that’s not the only answer … And that’s why this post exists. Because while yes, it might be more “grammatically correct” in the first form … it does paint a different picture, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, people don’t always speak in a manner that is grammatically correct. Far from it, in fact. If one were to write a book where all the dialogue was perfectly grammatically correct, you’d have a book with really stilted characters that wouldn’t feel real at all.

But let’s hop back from that for just a moment and go back to the image in your head when you read those two sentences. Now again, they’re the same exact sentence, just with different punctuation and by necessity one emphasized word.

But how different did was the image that they painted in your head? The first feels more sedate, even if frustrated, with its frequent pauses and you can almost picture—or maybe you did—the speak tilting her head for emphasis with each pronouncement of the problems faced by their team.

Compare that to the second bit of dialogue that “lacks” all the “proper” punctuation. How does the lack of pauses change the tone of the words spoken? How does it change your mental picture of the one doing the speaking?

It changes, doesn’t it? There’s no longer the measured, sedate pace of the first quote. Instead it feels breathless, like frustration boiling over. Rather than head tilts for emphasis, you can almost picture their hands being thrown out or up as they finish speaking. There’s a sense that they are just about done with whoever they’re speaking with.

All from a few tiny changes. But they’re tiny changes with big impact. Before on the site I’ve talked about the difference between “No, thanks” and “No thanks” and what that tells us about a character.

Well today we’re taking that simple concept and expanding it a bit further. Moving past “No, thanks” versus “No thanks” and looking at how cutting a comma or breaking a rule of “proper grammar” in our dialogue can help bring a scene to life.

So again, I want you to go back to that image you had in your head. Specifically in the second quote, the one with the punctuation removed. How agitated did you imagine the speaker was? How did you see them in your head?

Got that image in there? Okay. Now imagine that the author of this story felt that they had to be “grammatically correct” and wrote the first sentence, but wanted the image of the second.

Now, this is still feasible … just not with the lone sentence. They’d need to add description, talking about how the speaker was throwing their hands up. They’d also need to add a bit about how the words were coming quickly, maybe straight call-out that they were frustrated, because even with the added description, the dialogue doesn’t match the same tone with its more languid pauses and stops.

In other words, in order to have a “correct” dialogue segment, we would need at least one to two additional sentences, maybe more, of description to make up for the shortfall. And our line of dialogue becomes an entire paragraph.

Worse, the dialogue still feels stilted compared to the description that would be given. It would feel like when I child hands you a toy car and says “I don’t have another truck, so this is your truck.” Yes, the additional description lets us imagine that the sentence is a little different … but it still is just a band-aid over the sentence itself not really matching the mood of the character as we’ve been told.

Uh-oh. Did you catch that last word there? Told? I hope so. Yes, what we’ve stumbled upon is a situation in which in pursuit of “grammatically correct” dialogue we have resorted to telling our audience what the emotion of our character is rather than showing it.

Now again, it’s show versus tell, not “show, don’t tell.” Some tell is fine. All books have tell.

But did you need all that extra tell when you can just cut a couple of commas and paint the same picture? Sands,. you can go even further and add a single sentence to the second quote about how they are throwing their hands up or something similar and heavily reinforce the image that the reader already had in their mind (or close to it), building up what the dialogue already showed. And it would still be smaller than what you’d need to do to produce a less vivid image by sticking with the proper commas.

Okay, I think we’ve hammered this point well enough. But I do want to address that this isn’t an invitation to simply ignore grammar. For one, we’re talking about dialogue here. There are cases where you will want to disobey conventional grammar rules in the narrative text, but they’re few and far between and always left to very specific cases of “I know what I’m doing.”

But secondly, I do want to emphasize that while this has its place, you don’t need to do this with every single bit of dialogue. This isn’t a call to break all the rules of grammar for every single instance, but a call to attention that breaking those rules in the moments where a character would break those rules—by speaking quickly, using slang, skipping filler words or using a lot of them, etc—are incredibly useful and evocative. Dialogue is incredibly strong in any story it appears in. It’s one of the few things that will instantly grasp a reader’s eye because of how much attention—its own paragraph—it is given and how strong it can be in driving the narrative.

Breaking or not breaking the rules of grammar with dialogue can be one of the most powerful tools for showing character and scene in your book … even if the reader doesn’t realize it.

\Let me offer a brief example from my own work. In Axtara – Banking and Finance, the titular Axtara is noted in-universe by a sharp-eyed character to consciously change up how she speaks based on the situation she’s in. This is something we all do subconsciously to a degree, but Axtara does it consciously in the setting depending on the audience and purpose of her conversation. She’s quite correct and formal with nobility, as well as a little flowery, while more direct but no less clear with clients. With friends she relaxes a bit, her dialogue becoming more lax and laid back … but with bits of her formal nature shining through.

What results is that her character and her body language is on display as soon as the readers subconsciously see what she’s saying. By the midway point of the book, it’s second-nature to the reader to see a bit of dialogue with nobility and picture her sitting up straight, holding herself at attention as she chooses each word carefully.

Now that is powerful showing.

Point being, this isn’t a tool to be used lightly and spread about indiscriminately. It’s laser-focused, highly dependent on each individual character and their immediate setting. Deploy it with careful precision … but do deploy it!

And that’s it. By virtue of speeding up or slowing someone’s dialogue by removing or adding commas and other punctuation, one can entirely change the reader’s picture of a scene and show their actions without even describing them. Or familiarize a reader to the point that they envision them simply by being prompted by certain words or phrases.

This is a powerful tool. Difficult to use, but powerful. And it absolutely should be in your toolbox. It also may take some practice to get used to. And as before, I’ll repeat once again today that you have to know the rules to break them.

But this is a tool you should always have at the ready in your toolbox. Use it well, and your work will shine for it.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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