“Each speech, however brief, must be worth hearing.”
—Richard Walter, Screenwriting
We make characters come alive through dialogue. Here are a few tips I’ve used in forming characters that speak for themselves.
ASSEMBLE HIM: We build characters around people we know. Write a brief bio of your character for reference. Give him a past, and he will speak out of that life. The adjectives you use to describe him—blunt, stoic, anxious―will flavor his dialogue.
HEAR HIM: Listen to people similar to your character. Take notes. Watch gestures.
PACE HIM: Watch movies and TV shows over and over to get the rhythm and pace of similar characters.Downton Abbey people speak very differently fromDragnet people.
SCRIPT HIM: Try drafting a scene as a script with dialogue only. Notice how each character’s dialogue differs from others’ in vocabulary, mood, and length. Now hide the names of the characters as you read. Can you tell who’s speaking which lines?
UPGRADE HIM: Fictional dialogue shouldn’t be written the way people actually talk. The author eliminates the hems and haws, the repeats and chitchat.
TONE HIM DOWN OR UP: Write good tonal tags and qualifiers, how and why your characters speak. These samples are from The Potter’s Field by Ellis Peters.
Describe the tone:
“His name is John Hinde.” The answer came readily, even eagerly.
Describe the speaker:
She shook her head decisively. “No chance of that.”
“Chance had no part of it,” said Cadfael, leaning his folded arms upon the table.
“True,” said the abbot, his eyes very shrewd upon Cadfael’s face.
Describe the undertone:
“And how did you acquire that ring?” asked Radulfus mildly, but with a sharp and daunting eye upon the boy’s face.
Describe the effect on the person spoken to:
Cadfael nudged him into alertness by adding, “It has to do with the body we found in the Potter’s Field.”
RUSH HIM: Bypass tags and qualifiers to speed things up.
“Don’t bite my head off.”
“Don’t ask stupid questions!”
SUMMARIZE HIM: Speed up the pace when necessary by summarizing conversation: Elijah filled her in on the details of the search. But don’t dilute climactic moments by leaving out juicy dialogue: Daisy told Anthony why she could never love anyone else.
READ HIM: Now read the dialogue aloud, listening to the tones and inflections you’ve given your characters. Rewrite until each character speaks with his own voice.
Then give yourself a “Well done!”
Lena Wood loves the Lord, her family, the Church, and mission/travel adventures. She’s the author of the Elijah Creek & The Armor of God fiction series; three mission devo journals for short-termers—Called, Challenged, and Changed; and Stage it Right, a book of fun, practical, theatrical ideas for on and off the stage. Lena speaks around the country on the topic of “Occult Mysticism in the Church.” She has two daughters and four grandsons.