Writerly Stuff: Toward Consistent, Character-Oriented Dialogue.

Dialogue, for the most part, should be no more than just normal, human conversation.  Yes, there are plenty of writers who find it hard to make dialogue sound natural and realistic.  Some suggest listening in on the conversations of others as a way of learning to write realistic dialogue.  I always found that just shy of being a peeping Tom.  The truth is we have all been in enough conversations with enough different people, we ought to know the way it works.  If we have ever talked and had a conversation, we should be able to write one.  Easy enough, but then there are two things which are worth considering in any dialogue.  Fortunately, neither requires us to become “listening Toms.”

Of first  importance is the thing I find rarely mentioned in instructions of “how-to-write-dialogue.”  That is, to make the words of a given character, throughout the work, consistent with their background and personality.  What do I mean by consistent? 

It is easiest to understand if the character speaks a particular dialect.  You might even think consistency in the dialect should go without saying.  It is a little more difficult to remember this when the character is perhaps a less developed, “typical” type person.  For example a “typical” redneck will speak a certain way, employ certain phrases in certain circumstances and so on.  The same would be true for a “typical” 1920s upper crust snob.  With such a character we might strive for some consistency.  Most people, however, never think of this when they are working with their fully fleshed-out people.  Why not?  You should.

And then also (second) it is important to consider the emotional content being conveyed in the words.  English is a blessing and a curse, but one of the blessings is there are so many ways of saying the same thing.  To really understand these two points and what I am trying to get at, consider the following idea expressed in several different ways. 

I have yet to figure this out.  I see someone intelligent, perhaps educated, and thoughtful, rubbing their chin or maybe tapping a pencil on a desk while their eyes are focused on a nebulous distance and they are thinking…thinking.  Imagine attempting to solve a puzzle, a puzzling situation or a crime or read a treasure map…or maybe just figure out a magician’s trick.  It may be something that has been hanging around for years, but “I have yet to figure this out.”

I have not yet figured this out.  This is a person trying to make a decision today and is feeling some pressure, like where do we go from here?  There is confusion, in part.  They may be a person that is normally confused.  This phrase might easily start with “Wait a minute…”  This is the kind of thing someone says before another answers, “Don’t worry about it.  We just have to go.”  “I’m not worried about it,” is the normal response; but they generally are.  Often – perhaps too often – when they person finally does figure it out it tends to make all the difference in the storyline.  This one may not be as intelligent, or at least as introspective as the first, but they are generally either bright or have some special knowledge, background or experience to deal with whatever it is.

I have not figured this out yet.  I see someone beginning to feel the pressure to find a solution.  They may be working on some technology or some code or message.  It says I understand part of this, but not all, not yet, “Just give me a little more time.”  I see here a person who grabs hold of life like a dog that bites and doesn’t want to let go.  Where the first person may sleep on it in the hope of starting with a clear mind in the morning, and the second might fret about it, this is the one who will stay up all night working on the problem, non-stop until they collapse or get an answer.

I haven’t figured it out yet.  This person is angry.  This says, “I’m not ready.”   Usually, there isn’t any more time.  Sometimes this might be yelled or shouted, especially if lives are at stake.  It is a plea for more time, or a demand.  The phrase is contracted.  Someone who lives life in speed time, for whom short and pithy conversation is the norm might say this regardless of any pressure.  It may be spoken out of desperation or simply because this is an angry person.

Yes, nearly any character can use the above phrases in the right time and place, but generally I hope you can see how these same phrases might be drawn out of a consistent personality.  Speedy, who likes things short and sweet might always use the final form, even if it is spoken in calm and kind tones.  One of the beauties of the English language is there are so many ways to say the same thing.

Consider this: Bob might be a pull-no-punches, say-it-like-it-is kind of guy.  If he made the comment necessary to move the story forward, he would say it short and to the point, feelings be damned.  Betty, on the other hand, might say the exact same thing but phrase it in a way entirely different so as to protect the feelings of the hearer.  Who knows?  You know.  They are your characters. 

All I am suggesting when you read through your story/book/novel, you take a look at the dialogue you have written.  Don’t just look to see if it sounds realistic.  Ask:  1.  Is it consistent to the character in the way they phrase things?  (Don’t let the doofus start philosophizing, unless it is a comedy).  2.  Is it consistent to the character in who they are?  (Don’t have your wall-flower suddenly start shouting and try to take center stage, unless…).  And 3.   is this sentence or speech in line with what that character is feeling at the moment, and does the phrasing convey those feelings?  You see?  Dialogue is far more than the mere exchange of information.

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