Last week, I attended a dialogue writing seminar given by bestselling author Aaron Allston. I recommend attending his seminars if you have the opportunity. Below are my notes from the seminar entitled "Talk to Me".
It's widely accepted that dialogue attribution like "he said" or "she muttered" should be avoided in most (but not all) cases. You can avoid these attributions by ensuring that your characters have distinctive speech patterns and ways of expressing themselves. Aaron refers to these as "character voice hooks".
A character's voice hook makes their dialogue distinctive enough that readers can figure out who is speaking without spelling it out for them. When they can do this, they become more engaged with the story. Voice hooks also help develop a character, by highlighting the person's age, social status, intelligence level, and other traits.
There are many types of voice hooks you might use, including (but not limited to):
- A character might always start a conversation by saying the other person's name, as in: "Beth! I need you to understand this…"
- The character might start every conversation with the same phrase. Aaron mentioned a friend of his who starts every conversation by saying "Hey there." When you hear that phrase, you know who is talking.
- The character might use aggressive questions, such as "Just what do you think you're doing?" or "Why are you doing it like that?"
- The character might use phrases that suggest his or her age, such as "He's all, like, up in my grill…" (When you hear a phrase like that, you know it's probably not an 80-year-old woman speaking.)
- The character's word choice might indicate a high social status, or an inflated self-image, as in "What you must understand, my young friend…"
- The character may use references that suggest his or her age, such as "Back in the days when I worked with Humphrey Bogart…" (suggesting someone older) or "When I was on the set with Lindsay Lohan, she was so…" (suggesting a younger person)
- The way the character's speech is punctuated can also be a hook. For example, I know a real person who tends to pause between every three to five words he speaks. A line of his dialogue might be written as "Well, you see… I had to stop… at the store… to pick up some milk… We were out."
- Aaron mentioned an example of a person whose natural speech pattern is to raise the pitch of their voice at the end of every sentence, as though they are asking a question (when they aren't). Their dialogue might look like: "I was talking to Joan? She told me they're getting a divorce? Can you believe that?"
- A character's word choice should be reflective of their educational background and experience. It's unlikely that a housewife would refer to a criminal as a "perp," while that might be perfectly appropriate for a police officer. An engineer probably won't refer to a tool or device as a "doohickey" but his sister the fashion model might.
Voice hooks should be used carefully. You want the reader to be able to distinguish between your characters, but you don't want the voice hooks to be so heavy-handed that they irritate or distract the reader from the story. This will make them put down your book and never pick it up again.
If you are having trouble getting the right voice for a character, it may help to think of a famous actor/actress (or just someone you know) who reminds you of that character. As you write dialogue for the character, imagine that person speaking the lines. If they don't sound right coming from that person's mouth, rewrite the dialogue until they do. Do your job well enough, and your readers may even imagine the character as that actor or actress.