Speaking in Tongues

I find writing dialogue one of the more enjoyable elements of fiction-writing. I have been told that I’m good at it. Whether I am or not I cannot judge objectively but what I do know is that I enjoy it. I find it much easier to hear in my head what my characters are saying to each other than I find it to describe what they are seeing or how they are feeling in a realistic way.

Luckily, dialogue can be used to do all these things. Convey mood, surroundings, impart information and characterise and move the plot forward, and all simply and effectively. I know to avoid info-dumping (ie. characters explaining things to each other that they have no need to, either because it’s not relevant or because both the characters already know the information) and I find I barely have to think at all to come up with dialogue.

But it is quite another matter finding a ‘voice’. Of course it takes years and years for most writers to find their writing voice, to find what they want to write about, to find their style and most importantly, what they want to do with it. I am far off that point still. But on the nitty-gritty ground level, I know I need to work on the voices of my characters.

The actual writing of the dialogue I find it easy , as I say, and on the face of it I think my speech is relatively realistic and effective. But that’s only an apprentice-level skill. My characters might talk to each other simply and realistically, but I find it very, very, hard to give them there own voices. There own styles of speech, there own way of expressing things, there own way of interacting which changes between who they are talking to and what they are discussing.

I try to get round this by keeping in mind all the time what the character is thinking. Only some of what we are thinking comes out in our speech. There are often myriad reason why we respond the way we do or why we discuss certain things a certain way. The other person and or/the reader doesn’t need to know everything the other person is thinking, it would be next to impossible to communicate if they did, but keeping it in consideration when characters are interactive, I hope, will inform their individual style of speech.

There are also more practical levels to consider with characters’ voices. As mine is a fantasy novel, the characters are from another world, and from many different parts of that world. So accent and language comes into play as well. I have not tried to make anyone speak phonetically however. I know these characters speak with accents. The narrator even describes them when it is relevant. But I leave it to the reader’s mind to fill in the lilts and the twangs as they see fit, leaving their imagination to do the work rather than prescribing to them what it sounds like.

One, this would be way too difficult and two, it would be far to ‘writer-y’. If I wrote the speech phonetically, the reader would see the writer at work. You don’t want that, you just want to hear the characters in your head. The hobbits in Lord Of the Rings will forever now have West Country/Scottish accents in our minds now thanks to the film adaptations but the actual speech patterns and language choices used in the text lead to this decision. Just from the text you could discern localised speech structures and you get a lot about their characters by how they talk to each other. They definitely had their own voices in the readers’ heads before anyone even got round to writing scripts and hiring dialect coaches.

I know voice is my main pitfall with dialogue. Some of my characters have accents and even their own curses and blasphemies, it is true, but as far as language is used, I think it would be hard for anyone to tell one character from another with just their speech.

This is something I will have to work on as I go as well as work on in the edit. It is tempting to put all difficult things off until the editing stage (and with most I think it is ok to do so as it will only be after I’ve reached the end that I will know where the novel is going and be able to pull together continuity and define character development) but I do believe characters’ speech and voices are something I need to try and keep a handle on as I go, since it is a window to their souls and motivation. And motivation is something you constantly have to bear in mind as the plot unfolds to make sure it does so interestingly and realistically.

So I shall keep soldiering on and concentrate harder on the language used by my characters, keeping in mind their flaws and drives to try and make sure the story builds smoothly.

I would be interested to know how everyone else finds writing dialogue? Does it flow perhaps too easily, meaning lots of tinkering, or is it something you have to keep a tight watch on as you do, to make sure you are keeping your characters, well…in-character?

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2 Responses to Speaking in Tongues

  1. Chris says:

    I think writing dialogue is something I excel at. Although sometimes I find I have to be careful not to reveal too much in my dialogue, otherwise the story moves too fast.

    • jcollyer says:

      It’s a very effective way to develop character and progress the story: you’re right that it can almost be too easy. I sometimes have to try and make sure I don’t give too much away too quickly!

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