The Art of Fiction: Putting Words in Your Character’s Mouths

November 1, 2004
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Coyote Morning by Lisa Lenard-CookThe Art of Fiction: Putting Words in Your Character's Mouths

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

November 2004 

Coyote Morning, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook Buy This Book via Amazon.com

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

 

" Dialogue is what happens when characters speak out loud." —Lenard-Cook

 

We ask a lot of our characters. We ask them to be true to themselves (and, though they’re less likely to comply, to each other), to reveal themselves through background, gesture, tastes, and surroundings. We expect them to let readers learn about them by the words they use to talk to each other, and we expect them to be as good (or as bad) as those words. But—and here’s the rub—as the ones who put words in their mouths, we, the authors, are responsible for what they say and how they say it.

Dialogue is what happens when characters speak out loud. In addition to revealing character (both directly and indirectly), we use dialogue to:

establish immediacy
add to the reader’s knowledge about both character and situation
reveal the opposite of what a point of view character tells us
give information about characters’ backgrounds
as with all aspects of fiction, keep the narrative moving forward

We don’t use dialogue to:

repeat information the characters already know
reveal thoughts a character wouldn’t reveal to another character

 

"Dialogue, as with all aspects of fiction, should keep the story moving forward." —Lenard-Cook

 

Some Rules for Dialogue

Some of this is Grammar 101, but you’ve got to master the rules in this section for an editor to take you seriously. If these rules are elementary to you, skip them. For everyone else, print them out and paste them on your computer monitor.

Start a new paragraph every time a new speaker speaks. Vary speech with character. Keep it brief. Don’t, don’t, don’t put thoughts in quotation marks! Terminal punctuation (commas, periods) goes inside the quotation marks. Don’t waste dialogue with useless information. If it’s not important, leave it out. Skip “hello.” Skip “how are you.” Don’t bother with names—your characters already know them, and so do your readers. Dialogue should show relationships. Dialogue, as with all aspects of fiction, should keep the story moving forward. (If you sense a theme here, good for you!)

Attribution

Attribution is the way you show who is speaking. Chances are, you’ve read something where you had to count back to figure out who was saying what. I’d bet one of two things occurred: Either the author under-attributed, or the characters’ ways of speaking weren’t varied enough. Here are a two more rules for attribution:

“Said” works best 99.99% of the time. Having characters equivocate, question, demand, and otherwise quibble slows down your narrative, and sometimes makes it inadvertently hilarious. (“I don’t know,” Mary asserted, or, “Absolutely!” Steve demurred.) Don’t use adverbs to “explain” dialogue. (These are called Tom Swifties, as in, “Hurry up,” Tom said swiftly.) Let the dialogue and actions do the work. In fact, using action to attribute dialogue serves multi purposes. Here’s Tom again: Tom was already at the door. “Come on,” he said, pushing it so hard it slammed back against the bricks. “Hurry up.”

 

"Dialect is distracting. Instead, use word placement to show dialect—Lenard-Cook

 

A Word (all right, three words) About Colloquial Spelling

Don’t do it. Dialect is distracting. Instead, use word placement to show dialect. Here’s an example:

Bad: “Vat yoo min, vee kent doo dat? Iz nod sumting dey doo heh?”

Good: “What you mean, we can’t do that? Is not something they do here?”

The other thing to remember about using dialect is that once in a while is enough. Establish a voice’s rhythm and the reader will get it without you reminding him/her all the time. When I have a character whose first language is not English, her way of speaking English will reflect her first language. Perhaps she will not use contractions. Or it is possible she will use a phrase like “it is possible” in just such a way as I have done in this sentence.

In Short

Like all aspects of fiction, dialogue can work for you or against you. If, like me, you’re a lifelong eavesdropper with an ear for the way people talk (and don’t talk) to each other, it can actually be more difficult to create dialogue on the page. If I included every time my husband said, “Huh?” in response to something I said, for example, I’d have 100 pages in no time flat. But would my narrative be moving forward? No. Would I reveal something of our relationship? No again, except perhaps that my husband needs his attention flagged before I start speaking.

Beginning writers expect a great deal of dialogue, and some of those expectations are merited. But don’t ask your characters to say more than they want for the sake of your story. That part’s still up to you.

About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and was a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.

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