Dialogue is a wonderful tool for showing the nature of someone’s character in your story.
In real life we are constantly measuring and gauging the character and nature of people around us. From an evolutionary point of view this would be to assess safety and threat; how comfortable we are with a person, or people, or how threatened we feel.
Combined with a person’s body language it is how we understand the nature of people we come to meet and know and whether we can trust them.
Show your character through dialogue
If nobody tells you what a person is like before you meet them, how do you find out? Take a moment to think about this. The show, don’t tell principle comes into play here in real life just as in fiction. No matter what others tell you about a person you will form your own opinion based on your observations of that person. It is the same in writing. Take time to write believable dialogue to show your readers what your character is like. It will create a more intimate picture than paragraphs of description from you.
If you explain a character to your reader, you’d better get it right when it comes to making them speak. If they’re a baddy and speak just like you (the nice person reading this blog) they won’t be believable. How they come across won’t match the description given.
Everybody speaks differently
We are all different in speech and mannerisms. We all do different things with our hands and faces and bodies while we are speaking. This where your powers of observation come in. As a writer you will probably already be observing everybody around you with a view to using what you see in your writing. Listening to other people’s conversations will give you the feel for how others speak; their individual language; the way they structure sentences; and the tone of their voice. You need to find ways of making characters speak differently to each other.
Watch how people move when they speak. What do they do with their hands? Do they have facial expressions they use often? Do they make good eye contact or do they avoid it? Are there words they use habitually? Take time to study people. People watching is a fascinating pastime and it will serve you well in your writing.
Jane chewed the inside of her lip and turned away slightly, her fingers picking at her sleeve. ‘Do you really expect me to believe that?’ she said.
Don’t forget the listener
When we speak to someone we pick up whether they are listening attentively and whether they are understanding us through their body language, facial expressions, and verbal responses. This is a vital part of conversation. When making notes about conversations, and in your stories, you need to remember this as well. A one-sided chat without responses doesn’t give the reader much of a clue about how the conversation went. Show them by showing them what the other person was doing as well as what they were saying.
Another example (hopefully this will show either doubt on Paul’s part, or that he wasn’t really listening – it depends on the situation you’ve put him in):
‘So, what do you think of my plans? Will you go along with it?’ said Jane.
Paul looked up, his eyes darting from side to side, his face questioning as he replied, ‘Er, yes. I think so. Can we just go over that again?’
Collect conversation snippets
Carrying your trusty notebook with you at all times is invaluable when it comes to collecting snippets of conversation. Never be afraid to whip out your notebook and start jotting down what you hear. Who’s going to know what you’re doing anyway, unless you tell them? It’s not as though you’re collecting incriminating evidence or confidential information (be careful about this). You are merely observing the world around you.
You’ve probably overheard some wonderful snippets of conversation in your time – I know I have – and wished you wrote it down at the time. Don’t just wish – write it! You don’t even need to know the entire conversation; sometimes the little bit you hear is so intriguing it will spark an idea for a story. You can always imagine where the conversation started and where it will finish.
There’s a wonderful little book, entitled ‘Overheard’. A collection of fragments of conversation overheard by the author and put together in one place. It’s funny, fascinating, and informative. I’ve often wondered whether the author writes anything else and if so, is this book his collection of conversations to use in his story writing?
Become an eavesdropper
Of course, in order to do all this, you’ll need to listen in to people’s conversations. I’m not suggesting you glue your ear to someone’s door, or somehow wire yourself into their phone conversations. There are plenty of innocent ways to overhear conversation. We do it all the time – in the queue at the shops, on buses and trains, in coffee shops and restaurants – we can’t help it. We are always near enough to others to hear some of what they are saying.
Utilise it – write it down and use it in your next story.