Let Your Characters Speak for Themselves

“As a writer, one of the first lessons you learn is to show not tell your story. One of the most effective ways to do this is by using the dialogue of the characters to move the story along.” The editor said to a young writer he’s just met at a conference. “The key to any good fiction story is how compelling the characters are and by the use of dialogue to make the characters come alive. Only by making the reader care about the occupants of your story can you accomplish good story telling.”

“So you mean I’ve got to worry about what the character’s say?” the new writer asked.

“Absolutely,” the editor answered. “Not only do you have to worry about what they say, you also have to worry about how they say it.”

“What does that mean? How they say it?”

“Well,” the editor continued, “you want to make it sound real, but at the same time, it has to be readable.”

“So, how do you do that?” The young writer asked, his face a mask of confusion.

“One simple way,” the editor answered, “is to picture the characters in you mind and write their dialogue with emotion.”

“You mean, with tag lines such as ‘she cried’ or ‘he laughed’?”

“They can be used, for sure. But you have to be careful you don’t overuse tag lines. They can be effective, but a better way would be with word choice.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Let’s say you have a character that is having an argument with her husband. Which is more effective?

‘You don’t love me.’ or ‘Okay, I get it, you don’t love me and you never have.’

“For me, as an editor, the second choice would get my vote. Not only are you showing the character as believing the husband doesn’t love her, but you are also showing how insecure the character is. No tag line could do that.”

“All right, I see what you mean. But how do I know if I’m making my dialogue sound good?”

“The easiest way is to either have someone else read it aloud or you read it aloud into a tape recorder and play it back to yourself. If while reading aloud, you stumble over a line, then you will know immediately that you need to go back and look at that line again. Stumbling is a sure sign that the dialogue needs work.”

“I see what you’re saying. My characters shouldn’t be saying anything that real people wouldn’t, right?” The young writer asked.

“Which brings us to the next point. Watch out for the use of dialect.”

“What’s wrong with dialect? Mark Twain used it all the time.”

“You’re not Mark Twain, are you?” The editor said gently to the young writer. “Most modern readers are turned off by heavy use of dialect. A little goes a long way. The best option is to introduce you character using dialect in a few lines and slowly transition into normal English. That’s not to say you can’t throw in a ‘ya’all’ here and there if it fits to remind the reader of who the character is.”

“But that’s the way my character talks and I understand him completely.”

“I know you understand. Yet, many of your readers might not. They may be unfamiliar with that particular dialect. While you may understand Cajun, this may be your reader’s first experience with it. The last thing you want to do is slow your reader down by making him have to translate the dialogue. Many won’t take the time and will move on to the next story.”

“So it’s always about the reader?”

“Always.” The editor answered.

“Any other tips you want to pass along about using effective dialogue in fiction?”

“Sure, here’s a few more pointers.” the editor continued. “When writing your story, think of how it would translate into a movie. Movies are almost always dialogue driven. There may be all sorts of whiz bang action going on in the background, but it takes the characters’ dialogue to make sense of it all.”

“Okay, I’ll start paying attention to movies and see how they do it. Anything else?”

“Don’t cheat and let the narration tell the story. Paragraph after paragraph of details and descriptions will bore your reader. Remember that you want as much white space on the page as possible. Using dialogue breaks up the action and allows your reader a little breathing room.”

“But I want my reader sitting on the edge of their seat. How can I do that without describing what’s going on?”

“By having your characters react to the action. It’s that simple. Unless your characters convey with their words what the action means, you can write pages of narration and no one will care. Once again, it’s the characters your reader cares about and unless your reader feels emotionally attached, beautiful prose means nothing.”

“So you’re saying narration has its place, such as world building, but what the character says and does is the most important thing?”

“I think you’ve got it.” the editor said. “Now go back and look at your story. Try to see where you can cut the flowery prose and instead, have the details conveyed by the dialogue of your characters.”

“Hey, thanks for all the advice. I think I can do this.”

“I know you can. And no need for thanks, just get to work and let your characters speak for themselves!”


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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