Part 07 – Dialog

By Al Kalar

“The writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”

Robert Benchley


Many a good story dies because of poorly written dialog. It’s all the fault of your English teacher, so blame it on him/her if it makes you feel better.

People don’t speak the way we were taught to write (with a few exceptions). We use contractions, slang, and made-up words that would get an “F” on an English term paper.

And people from different backgrounds don’t talk the same. Southerners, New Englander’s, folks from Louisiana, westerners, and others usually have a “regional accent”. In England, it’s often worse. Someone with a good ear for accents can tell you in which part of London someone grew up just by listening to the person talk. And we all love Australian accents — right?

So, why are so many books written with everyone speaking the same? Because authors are basically lazy. If we weren’t, we’d be employed in an honest line of work rather than pounding a keyboard. So, even when an author allows his characters to speak like a real person, chances are the character will sound just like the author — all of the characters.

So, what should you do? If you’re lazy, but can tell a good yarn, you’ll probably get by with “one voice” for your characters. But how much richer will your book be (and more salable) if the reader can identify who’s speaking just by how they talk?

Al Philipson did a masterful job in his Children of Destruction.  Listen to his characters talk:cover

“Well — I’ve got the master bedroom now . . .” Buck half smiled and raised his eyebrows.

“Aren’t you the lady’s man?” Jean closed the door on the dishwasher.

He had the good grace to blush. “There are five other bedrooms in the house — or you can have the master, if you wish.”

“One of the others will be just fine. Show me around.” Her face was unreadable.

Jean and Buck are both products of the Spokane area. Buck is a professional man reared on a farm and Jean a schoolteacher reared in the house of a dentist. They sound very much alike. Occasionally Jean uses a term that Buck wouldn’t and conversely.

Buck looked over to Gloria. “Don’t you agree, Gloria?”

She held up both hands, palms out. “This is your rodeo, cowboy and I ain’t one o’ the judges.”

Gloria is a ranch wife and it shows.

She licked her lips nervously while treading water, then smiled. “Okay. I guess that will, like, work.” Then she splashed some water in his direction. C’mon in, dude.”

“I’m not dressed for it.”

“What’s wrong with, y’know, skin?” She grinned.

Tess is a, like, y’know, Seattle area teenager.

“This will do splendidly for a while, but eventually, we will have to compound our own medications as these lose their potency.” Anne swept her hand across the medicine shelves. “We had best keep an eye out for any books on the subject whenevah we ah around book stores and libraries. In the meantime, cahn we acquiah an X-ray machine?”

Anne, a physician, was educated in England at a very proper school. She never uses contractions, which makes her “voice” sound a bit strange to American ears. She also has an upper-class accent that drops her final “r”s and uses broad “a”s.

Mr. Philipson told me he wrote the entire first half of the story using his own “voice”. Then went through it again, once for each character, and rewrote that character’s lines with the “voice” he’d assigned to the character. It allowed him to “get into the character’s head” and be consistent throughout the story. A lot of work, but can you imagine how much more work would have been required in the days before word processors landed on our desks? So, there is no excuse for not doing a good job with your character’s voice.

When you’re filling in your character sheets, don’t forget to make notes about the character’s speaking habits. It will pay dividends in a much more enjoyable “read” if you follow your guidelines and do the extra work.


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