Giving Your Characters a Voice

Convincing, natural-sounding dialogue is one of the sharpest storytelling tools at your disposal. It can also be one of writing's toughest challenges, unless you happen to be blessed with an excellent ear for the nuances of how people speak. But your ear can be trained, and it's worth taking the time, effort, and care to learn to do dialogue well.

THE FUNCTIONS OF DIALOGUE

Dialogue is a form of action. It captures the attention of readers in the same way action does, and we take a certain pleasure in overhearing other people speak. Well-written dialogue serves three valuable functions in a story:

• It reveals character. Of the four ways to present a character to your readers, two of them involve dialogue and a third, inner monologue, also requires giving your character his own particular voice.

• It provides information. It's fine for the writer to tell readers what's going on, but it can be even more effective and engaging to have the characters do it. When the characters speak, we remain firmly in the time and place of the story, without being pulled away for an authorial explanation. One caution: The conversation will sound stilted if you have your characters tell each other details they already know just for your readers' benefit:

"Your husband—you know, that guy Robert Brown who works in the shipping department?—he tried to pick a fight with me today."

"Mrs. Snyder, your sixth grade teacher, said to tell you the homework is due on Friday, the last day of the school week."

• It moves the story forward. Dialogue is more than gossip or idle chitchat. What the characters tell each other, and the readers, should be pertinent to the story and help to keep its momentum rolling.

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