By Katie Lewis
Salutations from my sickbed. For the last week, I’ve been laid low by my second bout of Covid-19. Some things have been easier this time, and others have been worse. One aspect of my convalescence is the same, though: lots of Netflix.
Something has been forming in the back of my head. At exactly thirty minutes into Big Fish, it hit me. Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of writing. And we need to talk about it (no pun intended).
First, let me say that the fight over whether to use dialect or accents in dialogue has raged for centuries, and I’m not going to touch it here. Even ignoring that side of the discussion, though, there’s no denying that dialogue is tricky. We want our characters to sound natural. We want them to sound like real people.
Or, if we don’t want them to sound like real people, it’s usually because there’s a compelling, character-driven reason for that. Nailing the right voice for every character can be a challenge, but if you know who your characters are, you should also know how they talk.
Personally, I’ve always found it more instructive to talk about what not to do than try and illustrate what to do. However, we’ll get to that in a moment. For starters, here are a few questions I ask myself whenever I’m deciding how a character should talk.
- How old are they?
- What year does this occur (or what year is the setting imitating)?
- Where is this character from?
- What is this character’s social status? Level of education?
- How extroverted or introverted is this character?
Questions like these help flesh out if we’re dealing with a Valley Girl from the 90’s who says “like” every other word. Or a proper and polite Victorian gentleman with a multisyllabic vocabulary. Or a stiff alien that has no understanding of humor or sarcasm.
Talk Nerdy to Me
Now, I’m about to let my nerd flag fly hard, so stay with me for a moment. There is an author I consider to be my archnemesis, and his name is Alan Dean Foster. He has my dream job: novelizing movies and writing tie-in novels to existing franchises. He gets to write fanfiction for a living. But that’s not where my problem lies.
No, my problem is with how his characters talk.
Allow me to transport us back to the summer of 2007. Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie had just come out, and I was hooked. When I saw a prequel novel at the book store, I bought it without a second thought. The plot was fun, but as I was reading, I began to notice something felt . . . off.
It took me halfway through the book to put my finger on what it was. The chapters changed POV frequently, yet every character spoke precisely the same. Without the dialogue tags, I couldn’t tell you who said what. You don’t need to be obsessed with giant robots to know that Optimus Prime shouldn’t sound identical to Bumblebee. The interchangeable dialogue reduced the characters to cardboard cutouts.
Then, four years later, it happened again! In my senior year of college, I discovered the original Star Trek series and the movies. While slogging through Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I felt the same as reading that Transformers book. Once again, the problem wasn’t the story but how the characters spoke.
If you isolated any line of dialogue from that movie that doesn’t include a famous catchphrase, I couldn’t tell you if it came from Kirk, Spock, or Bones. I shouldn’t need to guess who’s talking when reading a quote from Dr. Leonard McCoy. Ever. When at last the credits rolled, what did I see but “Written by Alan Dean Foster.” I almost threw the remote across the room.
In these examples, I’m talking about characters that felt wrong because the writing wasn’t aligning with an already established voice. There were two original characters in that Star Trek movie, and their voices weren’t any more delineated than the others. In their first scene together, they were perfectly at ease with each other.
Ten minutes later, they’re fighting, and it’s revealed they’re former lovers. Even that line of exposition didn’t explain the sudden change in temperament. Dialogue can be an excellent way to show not tell when introducing readers to a character. However, if that character’s dialogue doesn’t adhere to a consistent personality, the audience only grows confused.
The Ultimate Show Don’t Tell.
Another experience I had in that senior year of college really drove this lesson home for me. I convinced a few fellow writing majors to take a playwriting class in the theater department with me. Our entire grade was based on a two-act play we would write at the end of the course. Suddenly, dialogue was everything.
The playwright can give acting directions or describe the set and costumes. Still, anyone who’s read a single Shakespeare play knows the heart is in the dialogue. A play is an ultimate show, don’t tell. All exposition and character development must come directly from the characters’ mouths (and sometimes their thoughts). To get essential details across to the audience, someone has to talk about them. More importantly, they have to speak and entertain at the same time.
Ever since I took that class (where I wrote the weirdest play my professor had ever read, that’s another story), I’ve had a new ear for dialogue. I know Tony Stark is a bit narcissistic because he talks a mile a minute, steamrolling over other characters at every turn.
Dr. Miranda Bailey, Grey’s Anatomy, is a no-nonsense professional with deep empathy. Her often stern tone either softens or grows more panicked when someone she loves is in danger. Alexander Hamilton is ambitious to the point of madness when he turns on a dime from overeager puppy to yelling at founding father George Washington. In their dialogue, these character traits come across not from any expository narration.
Suppose you struggle to express your characters’ voices. In that case, I encourage you to look to these more dialogue-driven mediums for guidance. Movies, TV shows, plays, and even video games rely on the characters’ spoken words to convey a story. We have more room to shape characters through descriptions that we don’t get in these visual mediums when writing prose.
The characterization will be more precise if their hearts, values, and motivations shine through more in what they say to each other than what you expand upon with exposition.
If anyone out there has some favorite movies, shows, plays, or games that they look to for inspiration, I’d love to hear about them! In the meantime, I’ll be returning to my re-watch of Big Fish for my own research and amusement.