A LESSON FROM THE MOVIES
Sometimes I think I should write screenplays instead of novels. Screenplays are mostly dialogue, and dialogue is my favorite part of writing. You can learn a lot about dialogue by watching movies: flow, tension, emotions. The main difference between it and a book is that the audience can see who’s speaking and their reactions, which help convey the emotion of the scene. In a book, you don’t have that luxury. You convey emotion through tags and action beats. And stories are all about emotion.
Here’s an exercise for you: take a piece of dialogue from a movie and write it as if it was in a book by adding tags and action beats. Write so that a person who hasn’t seen the movie can get the emotion of the scene.
Characters are supposed to sound different from each other, but if your readers have to reread the dialect to understand what’s being said, you’ve taken them out of the story. But how can you write a dialect and still make it readable?
One way is shown in Sharon Ewell Foster’s novel, Ain’t No River. In this example, Garvin, a female lawyer in Washington, D.C., is having a conversation with Miz Maizie, a janitor, in the ladies’ restroom:
“You let me know, now. I’ll call for some help.” The “I’ll” sounded more like “Iya” and the “help” sounded more like “hep.”
“No, Miz Maizie, I’m still above rim.”
“You know, Garvin, I heard of lots of little children—” Garvin heard chirren—”falling into them old-fashioned outhouses, and you ain’t too much bigger than they were.”
Foster does not spell out what the words sound like in the dialogue. Instead, she describes how certain words sound to Garvin. Otherwise, she uses word placement to convey Miz Maizie’s southern dialect, and this technique continues throughout the book. This way makes the dialogue easier to read while still maintaining its uniqueness.
WHAT DIALOGUE CAN DO
Look at this section of dialogue from Brian Jacques’ The Legend of Luke,part of the Redwallanimal fantasy series. How many characters are speaking? What can you learn about them and the plot? I’ve removed the tags and numbered the lines for reference.
- “Et be a gurt pity, ‘cos we’m be orfully near ee seashores. Oi cudd feel et in moi diggen claws.”
- “But we can’t go any farther now.”
- “…Cheer up, pretty one, or you’ll have it rainin’. Leave it to me, I’ve got a plan!”
- “You’m got ee plan, zurr?
- “Why d’ye think they call me Prince of Mousethieves? Of course, I’ve got a plan, you ole tunnel-grubber!”
- “I hope ’tis a plan that’ll work, matey?”
- “Oh indeed, an’ did you ever know any o’ my plans that didn’t work, O swinger of swords?”
- “Aye, lots of them, O pincher of pies!”
- “Well, this won’t be one of that sort, O noble whiskers!”
- “It had better not be, O pot-bellied soup-swigger. Now tell on.”
Dialogue has two purposes: to advance the plot and show characterization. The above passage does both. How many characters did you count? There are four. Dinny speaks lines 1 and 4; Trimp, 2; Gonff, 3, 5, 7, and 9; and Martin, 6, 8, and 10.
What did you learn about the characters? Dinny seems a little slow by the speech pattern and is equipped for digging tunnels. (He’s a mole.) Trimp is beautiful. Gonff is an overconfident, plump mouse who steals pies. Martin knows how to use a sword and has whiskers. (He’s also a mouse). Martin and Gonff are good friends.
What’s going on? The characters are going to the seashore, but something has prevented them from continuing their journey which requires a plan to overcome. (They must travel through a wood filled with savage killers.) Do they make it? You’ll have to read the book.
Here’s an exercise for you. Look at the dialogue passages in your favorite novels, block out the tag lines, and see what you can learn from them.
THOSE PESKY WORKSHEETS
Character worksheets. They abound in writing books and online. Some are one page; others cover many more. They include details about physical appearance, professions, likes, dislikes, and backstory.
In the past, I’ve rolled my eyes at all that detail. I knew my characters in my head. I only needed to write down how they looked, so they had the same eye color on page 215 as they did on page ten, right?
As I went back to revise my novel, I discovered I needed much more information about my characters. This included speech patterns, motivations, relationships, and their role in the story. There was no way I could keep everything about each character consistent in my head. I needed to fill out those worksheets completely. They can’t have too much information. If I would have included more detail in the first place, I would have saved myself a lot of backtracking. I’ll remedy this when I start my next novel.
Every detail in your character worksheets does not have to appear in your story. Only a fraction should make it into the final work. But because you know your characters, your story will be richer for it, and your readers will come back for more.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Finding the right name for a character can be a challenge. I’ve spent hours searching for the perfect one through books and online. I look at meanings, spellings, how the name sounds, and if it fits the time period and setting of the story. This varies, depending on the importance of the character.
A name can show personality. A woman called Cassandra gives an impression of elegance and formality. If she goes by the nickname Cassie, she’s playful and care-free. Your characters can also act contrary to what their names imply. Or don’t name them at all. That alone is significant.
Keep in mind how your readers might pronounce your characters’ names. I have a friend who can’t discuss the science-fiction novels she reads with her husband because they say the names so differently. Consider putting a pronunciation guide in either your book or online if the names are unique, especially if you write science fiction, fantasy, or even historical periods like Anglo-Saxon England. You want your readers to fall in love with your characters, not stumble over what to call them.