25 May 2007

Distinctive Dialogue

Last Sunday, in my workshop on dialogue and dialogue tags at SCBWI New England's annual conference, I promised to post some material from one of my PowerPoint slides here on the blog. And now, five days after I started this entry, I'm finally finishing it.

I propose that the key to creating distinctive speech patterns is to focus on little things: habitual sentence structure, word choices, exclamations and questions. If we make those touches distinct for each character and keep them consistent, then readers will pick up characters' speech patterns and be able to follow a complex conversation, even with several speakers and changes in the emotions or opinions that individuals are expressing.

I put up a slide listing several ways that speech patterns often vary. Some involve the content of a character's speech (what she says) and others the form (how she says it):

  • Contractions v. Full words
  • Metaphors v. Plain language
  • Originality v. Clichés
  • Grammatical constructions v. Non-standard
  • Long sentences v. Short
  • Anglo-Saxon words v. Latinate expressions
  • Complete sentences v. Sentence fragments
  • Interruption and apposition v. Directness
  • Sarcastic v. Sincere
  • Joking v. Serious
  • Negative v. Positive
  • Hemming and hawing v. Smooth speech
  • Slang v. Formality
  • Qualifying (e.g., rather, quite, very, sort of) v. Bald
  • Overstatement v. Understatement
  • Direct address (i.e., using the other character's name) v. None
  • Repetition v. Terseness
  • Catch Phrases v. Generic language
This is by no means an exhaustive list. These variables are just those I came up with as I prepared my talk, probably far too late at night. But I hope it's a useful starting-point.

One workshop participant talked about having three characters who are all scared--which in certain scenes makes sense. How could each character's dialogue sound individual when they're all expressing the same emotion? One might be prone to overstatment ("We're all going to die!"), another to sarcasm ("Oh yeah, yelling will help."), and the third to asking questions ("But what are we going to do?"). If readers recognize those traits from calmer times, then they'll remember when the tension rises.

I must admit to getting a special kick out of distinctive speech patterns, particularly in my somewhat elevated if not exactly "high" fantasies. I just looked at chapter 10 of one of my manuscripts, and I see seven speaking characters:
  • A cross little dog, all snappish interjections and barks.
  • An old-fashioned American farmgirl, prone to saying things like "Gracious" and "I’m jes’ fine, ’member?"
  • A corporal who speaks so tersely he tends to leave the subjects and articles off the start of his sentences. Doesn't need them. Gets along fine.
  • A contented hippopotamus with his mouth full. “Oo ehuh ahh oo hi ih!”
  • A cottonmouth snake with a lisp.
  • Two alligators who speak in a somewhat formal style, frequently addressing each other as "brother" and "sister."
Those speaking styles send my word processor's "Spelling and Grammar..." tool into a tizzy--nothing but red and green underlines. And for a more realistic, serious story, such a variety of speech patterns might well be too flashy. But I guarantee you, readers won't lose track of who's saying what.

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