Talking About Talking…

Dialog often takes the driver’s seat in my stories and lately I’ve been concentrating on creating conversations that work on two levels. One, they carry the story forward with important exposition delivered in a natural manner AND two, they reveal as much about the speaker as they do about the story.

This is a big challenge but… I’m up for it.

My goal is to make language choices for each character that are spot on — maybe so spot on that reminders about who is talking will become irrelevant. This means talking about talking with my characters. Well, maybe not in a conventional conversation, but I want to know as much about the character’s speech a I know about his or her appearance.

Sometimes a back-story can be enhanced with vocabulary choices. An erudite professor won’t use the same words as a character with little or no formal education. Or will he? If the undereducated character’s back-story is about being self-taught and he’s carefully crafted an image that makes the impression he’s an Ivy League grad who does the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, his vocabulary might be top-loaded with SAT study-guide words.

I also think it’s important not to indulge in easy stereotypes, unless that’s your clear intention. Genre fiction, movies and TV shows are crowded with mobsters defined by their heavy New York (Brooklyn or Bronx) or New Jersey accents; Valley-Girl/air-head teenaged girls who default to “LIKE” between phrases; strong, silent tough guys and women who end every statement with a question, as if they are constantly in doubt. All of these stereotypes can help forward your story, acting as familiar shortcuts, but they can also undermine the unique nature of individual characters.

One of the tricks I’m keeping in mind is how a character references the senses and sense memories. While a visually oriented character might use the phrase “I see what you mean.” Another character might chose, “I hear you.” They are both agreeing with what another character is saying, but in their own way.

I’ve also discovered, again, that simply listening to conversations is key. Yes, I recommend discreet eavesdropping. It is so educational.

When it comes to MONSTERS, and other magical/paranormal characters, there aren’t a lot of handy models chatting at the next table at a coffee bar, but there are plenty of examples of conversations in which greed, jealousy, anger, hunger, paranoia, revenge, narcissism, power, self-deprecation, etc. etc. etc. are the stars.

So listen to the words that people choose — monstrous creatures have similar linguistic patterns.



  1. You just sparked a fun dialogue in my head. A candid interview with a monsterous creature. I can see the conversation going pretty close to a normal interview but then imagine a dragon or a gargoyle sitting in a coffee shop for the interview.

  2. Excellent point on sense dialog! During my brief, horrible stint in sales, we were taught to try to pick up what senses a potential client best related to and then phrase our pitch using them. I didn’t. BUT, I think it’s very true, and subtle, and says something about how we relate to the world.

    • Candy

      I’ve read, and seen, how people manipulate by mirroring everything from gestures and phrases to clothing choices and philosophical stances.

      About a million years ago a friend gave me a terrible book called “How to MAKE a Man Fall in Love with You” and it was all about adapting his words, his style, his sense framework, etc. to present yourself as his ideal object of love. Later on, after he was bonded to you, the book said you could slowly introduce the real you. No, I never used it. I was completely unable on so many levels, but over the years I’ve witnessed people employing similar methods in all sorts of contexts — getting jobs, making sales, gaining consensus on a committee and yes… even in romance. I think its the essence of the con artist — give the person what they want.

      My less nefarious application, in dialog writing, is turning out to be an interesting experiment!

    • Candy

      It’s more of an ongoing process rather than a specific project. I was focused on it as I reworked a short story this morning. Keeping the dialog/characters in mind is like wearing a particular kind of sun glasses that brings out flaws and sharpens everything you see.

  3. If that little monster at the next table doesn’t start eating with her mouth closed and can’t manage two sentences without interjecting a third ” Y know what I mean like” I’m going to squeal like a stuck pig.

  4. I liken dialog choices for characters to how discourse communities are presented in theories of Rhetoric and Composition. Our social circles can be represented in a Venn Diagram. Some circles will overlap and others will not. The language of my “teaching” circle is not connected to my “intimates” circle at all, but “teaching” does overlap with “professional groups.” So any given character will make adjustments to their dialog depending on the context. I’m really bad about using “teacher speak” and “academic prose” in the early drafts of my stories. It’s so helpful when critique partners can call me on it. Even though I know I tend to do so, it takes that important other set of eyes to point out the obvious.

    • Candy

      I love the way you’ve created a visual image to convey the groups. It’s not something I’d do, but it’s definitely a character revelation. As for teacher-speak… It can’t be as bad as the business marketing speak that is part of my freelance writing life. “Deliverables” is a particularly loathsome word. Fortunately it hasn’t migrated into my writing. Although, it’s a good word for certain characters.