Six impossible things

How it gets said #1: Word choice and phrasing

The second aspect of dialog, after “what people are talking about,” is how they talk about it. This is where the technical aspects of dialog begin to come into play: word choice, phrasing, idiom, syntax, and punctuation. That’s enough that it’s going to take me more than one post to cover it all. I’m starting with word choice and phrasing.

If dialog is the little black dress of fiction, word choice and phrasing are the accessories that dress it up or down. The way characters phrase what they say reflect their personality, their background, and their mood. Consider these different ways of phrasing a marriage proposal:

  • -Will you marry me?
  • -How about we get hitched, baby?
  • -I humbly request the honor of your hand in marriage.

The first example is plain and straightforward; almost any character might use it, under the right circumstances. It’s the default, simple expression of the topic under discussion. It might indicate that the character is matter-of-fact and to the point, but it might also indicate that the author hasn’t got a sense of the way this particular character thinks and speaks, or is more concerned with the topic than with the individuality of the character and his/her dialog.

The second example is slangy and informal, and to me, very 1960s (it’s the addition of “baby” at the end that does that). This character is also straightforward and direct, probably more confident, certainly more casual than the first speaker, and possibly comes from either a hippie or a country/Western background (based on “hitched,” which is not exactly common modern urban slang).

Character number three uses formal and traditional language; this may indicate either a very formal and traditional sort of person, or someone who is deliberately using traditional forms either as a way of undercutting them or as a way of contrasting with some decidedly non-traditional aspect of their personality or situation, as when the person doing the proposing is female.

It’s hard to imagine Character 2 using Character 3’s line, or Character 3 saying “let’s get hitched.” It’s also fairly easy to come up with additional versions – the poetic one, the overconfident one, the shy one, and so on. Each one implies a lot about the character who speaks the words.

In other words, each character has a different style of speaking that grows out of his/her personality and background. If your characters are all very similar in age and background, the differences may be subtle; if you have a diverse cast that includes people of different ages, ethnicities, social class, etc., the differences may be pronounced.

In general, many writers find it easier to begin with a group of characters who have major differences in the way they express themselves (a slangy teenager, her straightlaced grandmother, her aging-hippie uncle who’s stuck in the 60’s, the immigrant Arab neighbor with a doctorate in physics). When the words characters choose are very different from each other, it’s relatively easy to spot the places where that character falls out of his/her usual style, and once the writer has learned that, they can move on to characters with more subtle differences. Other writers prefer to start with characters who all sound more or less the same, and slowly learn to differentiate their speaking styles. It doesn’t matter which way you choose, as long as you can be consistent within a particular character’s dialog.

There are a number of mechanical tricks involving word choice that can help if the writer has trouble; basically, they all involve creating artificial dialog “rules,” one for each major character (or for each character whose dialog one is having trouble with). For instance, choose one character who never, ever uses contractions. Pick another who never has a sentence in dialog that’s more than seven words long, or one who never uses a word that’s more than five letters (or two syllables), or one who always includes at least one adverb, or two or more words of four syllables or more per sentence. Assign one a specific type of slang (urban, valley girl, hillbilly, etc.), or have one who inserts metaphors or similes at every possible opportunity, even if they are inappropriate, or who can’t speak a line without swearing, or who phrases almost everything as a question.

Do note that some of these tricks can get really obvious, especially if they’re used consistently by a major character in a long novel. This may not matter if a) the word choice “rule” you’ve assigned to your character really, really fits him/her well and believably, b) nobody else in the book uses the same dialog rule, and c) you don’t use the same dialog rule for any other characters ever again (not even in other books) unless you can come up with a really good justification (say, that the new character is the reincarnation of the first one).

Word choice can also convey a character’s mood, often by “breaking the rule” one has set for the character’s dialog. For instance, it is common for characters who normally use contractions (“I don’t think we should”) to stop using them when they are angry (“I said I do not, repeat, do not think we should”). It’s especially common for a character who has learned to speak in a new way (to sound more upper-class, usually, but also a non-native speaker of a language) to revert to their original tongue or idiolect if they are sufficiently stressed. Other characters may become more flowery and poetic when they’re happy. Usually these kinds of shifts in language don’t happen more than a couple of times per novel; more often, and the character’s dialog “rule” gets muddied and they stop sounding like someone with a speech style and start sounding like the writer doesn’t know what he/she is doing.

1 Comment
  1. My protagonist right now is working undercover as a member of a different culture. Fortunately, he knows the culture well and has not blown his cover yet; probably won’t till the crisis hits. He not only never uses contractions, he always speaks in complete sentences. It makes him sound very formal and alien, even when he’s sitting in a bar chewing the fat with people he knows. (He also drinks nothing stronger than green tea.)

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