Escape Your Speaking Brain to Write Better Dialogue

by Jason Black

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Last month's article covered tips for writing realistic dialogue.  That's essential, but it's only half the game.  The other equally essential half is writing distinctive dialogue.  Your characters cannot all sound like one another.

Ironically, while writing realistic dialogue means engaging your speaking brain while you write, writing distinctive dialogue means escaping your speaking brain.  Learn to escape the speech patterns baked into your own brain, or your characters will all sound like you.  Here are three methods for escaping your speaking brain.

Method #1: Use the character's birthplace.  Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and Caribbean English. Even within a country, different parts have their own sounds and patterns.  America has many linguistically distinct regions within it, as is true for Australia and the rest. Imitate people you know who didn't grow up where you grew up.

But take care; characters who come from a place with a well known speaking style must then exhibit that style.  You can't tell the reader that a character comes from Ireland only to have him greet another character with a hearty Australian "G’day, mate."  Learn the patois of the region the character is from enough to imitate it well, or no one will believe in the character.

Method #2: Create mannerisms.  Most people have verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy once who would say "whenever" in places everyone else would simply use "when." When I was about 12 years old, I developed a habit of inserting the word "basically" into nearly every sentence that came out of my mouth.  For each of your characters, create a particular phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately understandable, and make sure nobody else in your book uses it too.

Method #3: Formal, informal, and slang.  Some people are very formal in their speech, some are more casual, and some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality to draw from, and the degrees of formality are excellent tools for showing a character’s level of education and social background. Yes, it’s stereotypical that upper-income people with more education tend to speak more formally, while lower-income people with little education speak in a streetwise vernacular.  But the stereotype wouldn’t exist if it weren’t more or less true. Consider the immediate difference between "Would you be so kind as to get me a drink," and "Yo, my man, grab me a beer!"

Further, you can create very distinctive and believable characters by playing with the character’s level of formality in different scenes. Imagine you have a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard to complete college and become an upper-middle class professional.  This person may well use different speech patterns at work than when hanging out with his neighborhood pals. Showing the dilemma of trying to fit into two different worlds through his speech patterns is infinitely more effective than describing the dilemma in narrative.

Put them in practice.  Now that you've got those three methods, how can you use them?  It’s great if you can work out each character’s manner of speech before you write the novel so as to get it right from the beginning. If you like to create extensive character biographies beforehand, incorporate these methods into your novel planning process. You might even write sample scenes for your characters just to practice their voices.

But pre-planning doesn't work for everyone. Many writers only come to know their characters in the process of writing the books.  If that's you, apply these methods as you revise your first draft.  When the first draft is done and you know how the characters sound, take some time to list out each character's verbal mannerisms.  Things like "sounds like my friend Larry," or "says 'really really' instead of 'very'."

Compare your lists to make sure they aren’t too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have a good handle on each character’s voice, review the whole book and adjust every line of dialogue to fit with each speaker’s verbal patterns.

Dialect versus accent: a word of caution.  There is a difference between how people sound when they talk and the words they choose to say. The physical sound--how they shape their vowels and so forth--is accent. The patterns of words they use is dialect. As an author, you must control both.

Dialect is straightforward, because it’s all about word choice and order. Accent is harder, because it can only be represented on the silent page through tricks like intentional misspellings. This can be very effective if you're careful. It's easy to push accent into the land of ugly caricatures and racist portrayals, however unintentional. Few things will turn a reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.

The payoff.  When you master the techniques of realistic and distinctive dialogue, you'll create characters who readers can believe in.  You will also have given yourself another tool for showing--rather than telling--what your characters are made of.  After all, we reveal ourselves not only through what we say, but how we say it.

Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at

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