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by Bonnie Way
Dialogue is one of the hardest parts of
fiction to write, because it needs to sound real while
also performing its job within the story. One task given
to dialogue is to reveal more about the personality of
each character in the story, by showing how they talk and
how they interact with other characters.
Studying examples of fictional dialogue that works can
help you develop an ear for how dialogue reveals more
about the characters.
In the past, writers used phonetic representations of
words to convey that a character was speaking with a
dialect. However, this made the story very hard to read,
because the reader had to go slowly, sounding out each
word, and the effect of the dialect got lost.
A much better way to convey dialect is by word choice and
Passing by Samaria by Sharon Ewell Foster tells
the story of a young black American woman just after
World War II. Fosters dialogue is what makes this
novel happen; it is easy to hear the conversations of the
black characters, who have a unique lilt that the white
characters lack. Foster achieves this without using any
In the first chapter of the novel, JC is on his way to
war and tells his best friend Alena, You visit my
mamma... Shes gonna be lonely for me. She might try
to act like she all right, but she gonna be lonely.
Later he boasts, Thisll be the war to end all
wars. Once we able to prove ourselves, prove the coloured
man, the Race, is willing to fight and die for our
country, I know things gone change.
Read those sentences out loud to get the full value of
what Foster does with the dialogue. Then look at how the
grammar creates the dialect (e.g.., she all right
instead of shes all right, things
gone change instead of things are going to
Its very easy to picture a confident young black
man saying those words. Even if we didnt know JCs
background, wed be able to guess it from the way
that he talks.
Everyday conversations contain a lot of useless
information, chit chat, and banter that is often
meaningless. In fiction, however, that same banter can
convey information about our characters and their
In Robert Whitlows legal thriller Higher Hope, the
banter between two law students shows the differences in
their values and beliefs:
Tami prays before she eats, Julie said.
I told her if she stayed away from pork and
shellfish, the blessing is automatic..
Is the pastrami on your sandwich pork-free?
Go ahead and pray, Julie said.
From the girls banter, we see that Julie is a
rather modern, independent woman while Tami is a very
conservative Christian. However, we also see that they
like each other and enjoy working together, despite their
differences. The banter also helps lighten up otherwise
Be wary of using banter for its own sake, however.
Whitlows exchanges of banter are short and to the
point, keeping the story moving forward. It feels like
real dialogue, where two people exchange a few verbal
spars in the middle of a conversation and then keep
talking about whatever had started the conversation.
In Higher Hope, the banter shows how the two law students
are able to think quickly on their feet and jab at each
other.. Banter could also be used to show how one
character is shy or introspective and doesnt
respond to the verbal jibes of another character.
On the more negative side, banter can become verbal abuse
if it is very sarcastic or biting.
Many writers fall into the trap of using adverb tags,
such as he said gently or she said
lovingly. That breaks the writers number one
rule of show dont tell. Its much
more powerful if the words used by the characters convey
those emotions and show their attitudes towards each
Rather than saying that a character is belligerent or
courteous or snobby, show this through the words that
each character uses.
In Betty Jane Hegerats novel Running Toward Home, a
foster mother and a birth mother are sitting in a car
talking about their son. Tina, the birth mother, begins
the conversation by asking, So, where do you
think he is?
Wilmas eyes narrowed. Until we got your
phone message, we thought he was with you. Where hes
supposed to be.
Yeah, well he was sick. He shouldnt
have been out at all. I made him phone and tell you to
pick him up. . . .
Wilma shook her head. There were no calls
from Corey. Not while we were home, and not on the
What a surprise. Tina raised her arms to lift the
hair off the back of her neck. The car was stifling.
Well then I guess he lied, didnt he? How long
have you been here?
Only a few minutes, Wilma said. I
thought this would be a good place to start. Close to the
tiger. Corey told me he likes the tigers best.
Yeah, we always have to hang out with the
tigers for half the lousy visit.
Its obvious from the dialogue that neither woman
likes the other and each is vaguely accusing the other of
not giving Corey proper attention. Adding tags like
Wilma said accusingly or Tina said
rudely would distract from the story. The reader
already knows that simply from the way each character
spoke. Again, read the dialogue aloud and see how the
Good dialogue can carry a story forward, while poor
dialogue bogs it down. While reading fiction, take note
of places where the dialogue catches your attention and
analyze why it works. How did the author reveal more
about the characters through what they said?
Because dialogue is also meant to represent the spoken
word, read it aloud, whether its your own dialogue
or someone elses. Hearing it can help you grasp how
it works or where there are inconsistencies. Then use
what youve discovered to write great dialogue in
your own fiction.
Bonnie Way reads and writes fiction from a
small town in northern Alberta. She is the editor of
FellowScript, a quarterly writers newsletter, and a
contributing writer at Suite 101.com. When shes not
writing, shes busy as a wife and mom. You can find
her musings about life, writing, and motherhood at http://thekoalabearwriter.blogspot.com .
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