Writing Distinctive Dialogue by Joanna Campbell Slan
Good writers create distinctive dialogue, a way of speaking that is specific to each character. Distinctive dialogue occurs when the words and phrases used by one character are unique to that character, and that character alone. Writing distinctive dialogue is not easy, but it definitely is a skill worth mastering.
Benefits of distinctive dialogue
There are many benefits to distinctive dialogue.
- Distinctive dialogue brings a character into crisp focus, making him/her more real to the reader.
- Character-specific dialogue creates personalities who are both memorable and entertaining.
- When dialogue is distinctive, the writer does not need to tag every bit of dialogue. The reader can clearly identify who is speaking.
- With distinctive dialogue in place, the writer no long needs to do an “info dump” to flesh out the character. Word choices imply certain details, such as a character’s age, educational level, and ethnicity.
- Distinctive dialogue intrigues the reader. For example, if a character never curses, but suddenly lets loose with a stream of obscenities, this action is unexpected—and the reader will want to know more.
- Distinctive dialogue lends itself more naturally to conflict, because it’s more likely that characters will have misunderstandings, real or imagined.
Obviously, human beings are not born with the ability to talk. Therefore, our speech patterns are a function of external factors, such as our life experiences; internal factors, such as our personality and world view; and physical factors, such as speech impediments. When developing characters to inhabit our fictional worlds, the author gets to play God, using internal, external, and physical building blocks to create personalities on the page.
External and physical factors are easy to use
Most authors find it easy to imbue their characters with external and physical factors that are reflected in dialogue. For example, a well-educated character might speak with a big vocabulary, using a lot of multi-syllabic words. A well-traveled character might sprinkle in foreign phrases. A character with a hearing loss might not enunciate words clearly. These are fairly simplistic tricks, shallow ways of developing characters. Unfortunately, because they are superficial, using them creates the risk of crafting stereotypes, instead of unique personalities.
Using internal factors to create more complex characters
By going one step further, an author can use internal factors, such as personal/social style preferences, to build richer interior lives that can be expressed in the dialogue of our characters. Because all of us recognize these personality types – although often on a subconscious level — our readers form deeper connections with characters when they are constructed using the personal/social styles method. Dialogue can now do double-duty. It both reveals and reinforces a character’s personality.
A useful personal and social styles matrix
I like to use a combination of several personal and social style models. I’ve been trained in the DiSC Personality Assessment, but I am also familiar with the Social Styles Model. Here is the quadrant matrix I have developed to help me create compelling characters:
Using the quadrant matrix
When crafting a character, I now have four discrete choices. A character can be Tell-Assertive and Task-Oriented; Tell-Assertive and People-Oriented; Ask-Assertive and Task-Oriented; or Ask-Assertive and Task-Oriented. Each of these different characters will look at the world differently –and thus, he/she will speak differently. Rather than relying on superficial differences when I craft dialogue, I now choose words and phrases that are in accordance with my characters’ unique ways of seeing the world. As a side benefit, the differences among these styles cause ongoing, intrinsic friction. When I craft a cast of characters like this, each person has different wants and needs, as well as different ways of expressing him/herself. By keeping these differences in mind, it is much easier to write distinctive dialogue.
By using a personality matrix such as the one I’ve developed, any author can create characters that are much more authentic, and therefore, more memorable and compelling.
Learn more about Joanna Campbell Slan at joannacampbellslan.com.