- “Mrs. Barrow, maybe you could help us out with something. We’re hoping to go out after the show. Someplace where we could dance and get a gin fizz or two.”
- “Well, it’s two in the morning, kiddo. Another hour and I would have had the police out after you. Where were you, Ponyboy? Where in the almighty universe were you?”
- “He’d use his tommy gun, and by the end, the whole town would be dead or in jail.”
The above quotes are from The Lost Girl of Astor Street, The Outsiders, and Moon over Manifest. The first is set in 1924 Chicago, the second is set in 1950s Tulsa, and the third is set in 1936 Kansas. The differences in the dialogue are striking, varying between speaker, time, place, education level, and any of the other factors that make a character or a person unique.
In any genre that requires detailed worldbuilding, dialogue is the ticket when it comes to showing it off. What slang terms do your characters use? How do they refer to the fantastical new inventions in your world? Do they swear? Talk like they stepped straight out of a psychology textbook? What quirky phrases do they favor? Stephanie Morrill nailed this in her recent release, allowing each of her characters to shine with a unique voice.
Find a balance.
Especially in modern fiction, there is a balance between making your ‘true to life’ dialogue as twisted as Huckleberry Finn, and allowing each accent to come through. You can distinguish your characters through their words easily. Instead of spelling out each syllable of their thick Irish accent, dig into the mechanics. Maybe they use no contractions. Maybe they pause and break off in their sentences, maybe they use absolutely no slang. Making sure that each character doesn’t sound exactly the same–while avoiding overkill examples, such as stereotypical Southern accents or baby talk–is a good way to help your characters distinguish themselves in a busy world. Stephanie Morrill allowed her love interest a few Italian phrases and a sentence structure that showed his profession (detective) and upbringing. By contrast, Lydia’s refined speech contrasted with Piper’s quick, jumpy thoughts. Those choices reflected the personalities of each character and how they clashed with each other.
Make logic your friend.
Always dig into the whys and wherefores of everything in your novel. It usually provides for a much richer story. When it comes to dialogue, the same holds true. In The Lost Girl of Astor Street, Stephanie Morrill did this with her characters’ education levels. The laundress that Mariano and Piper interview talks in clipped, tangled words. Lydia and Piper talk in complete, structured sentences. Mariano’s sentences are logical and blunt.
In all those instances, we can easily guess at the cause. The laundress had a low education level. Lydia and Piper spent their school years at a fancy school for girls. Mariano is a detective, trained for years in the art of making a case and discovering evidence
Dialogue is often overlooked, expected to flow naturally into the story. With a little thought, it can sparkle more than ever.