Reveal Character through Dialog

Notes from my Redwood Writers Conference breakout session  April 28th, 2012

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007 and Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction (think ideolect), use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids  to define her character.

What does dialog do?

  1. adds to the reader’s knowledge of the situation  (facts vs knowledge)
  2. keeps the piece moving forward
  3.  reveals something about the speakers personalities both directly and indirectly  (subtext—what’s not said)
  4. dramatizes relationships between characters

EVERYTHING THAT AFFECTS A CHARACTER WILL AFFECT THE DIALOG!

We’re interested in how dialog reveals character.  What are some of the ways this is done?

   Syntax, accent, idiolect, cadence, rhythm, dialect 

How do you do it?  Elements of dialog:

-Dialog is what characters do to one another/verbal sparring a physical exchange

-Gesture—shows how something is said

-Silence is part of dialog—part of a verbal communication to pause, look away, refuse to respond. Very powerful.

-Dialog may not be grammatically correct—let the character’s music show

-The surrounding world is part of dialog—use it . Keep us grounded in the real world. No talking heads

-attribution: said! Don’t overburden your writing with substitutes and try to avoid adverbs

How do you write silence?

–Sensory clues about what happened in the silence: dog barks.

–Write a descriptive passage about the setting the dialog takes place in.

–Provide the character with thoughts in reaction to something said.

–Provide the character with a reaction to the dialog in a memory or flashback.

What isn’t said is called subtext. DIALOG EXISTS ON TWO LEVELS: THE SAID AND THE UNSAID.  Characters reveal themselves through what they conceal. They lie. They obfuscate.  What’s said must pertain to the plot or the general events of the story.  What is implied through subtext is the emotional story. The two go hand in hand.

Dialog Tips

–Dialog is not a source of facts about a piece: “You’ve missed the 8:35 ferry to the City and I’m not going to drive you the 35 miles to your job at 100 Bush St.”

–Dialog is not good for describing anything: “Wow, don’t you look great in that royal purple gown trimmed in white marabou around the plunging neckline.”

–Dialog is not a substitute for narrative. Facts need to be revealed in narrative—summarized in narrative.

–Dialog is not a place for extended brooding soliloquy.

Characteristics of dialog:

  1. each character should speak differently
  2. none of the characters should sound exactly like the author!
  3. characters speak differently with different characters
  4. characters speak differently in private than in public
  5. characters speak in manners that reflect their moods (loving vs angry)
  6. characters talk to their friends differently than to their mothers
  7. characters generally are not talking about the same thing in a conversation
  8. dialog sounds realistic, but is not written as people speak in life

Anatomy of dialog:

Dialog is what characters do to one another. It’s a verbal sparring, a physical exchange.

-Talk   (Dialog may not be grammatically correct)

-Gesture—shows how something is said.

-Silence—pause, look away, refuse to respond

-The surrounding world is part of dialog—keep the reader grounded in the real world. No talking heads.

-Attribution: use said. Don’t overburden your writing with substitutes; try to avoid adverbs. A strong verb will trump an adverb.

Exercise:   Write a dialog . Try to incorporate as many of the elements of dialog as possible to reveal your character’s natures.

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2 Comments

Filed under Creating Compelling Characters

2 responses to “Reveal Character through Dialog

  1. Thanks for this. I shared this post to a couple of my Facebook pages and on Twitter! Loved it. You touched on every aspect I could think of.