This web page is part of a hosted copy of the WoodWorks eZine at Elfwood.  (#1090)
The eZine is no longer updated, nor does it have it's own domain left... This also means that it's no use to contact the WoodWorks editors, etc, etc...
Ways to Ruin Your Dialogue
Part 4
by Erin Evans

Dialogue is an important part of your story. It shows us how your characters react to situations and people, helps move the action, and gives information to the reader. Dialogue is also very difficult to write. The best dialogue feels natural, even effortless, and gives rise to the misconception that “It’s only people talking.”

Just as your characters are better, worse, more interesting and more repugnant than real people, their dialogue must also go the extra length. It isn’t always easy, not ruining your dialogue, but it is always worth doing.

By now, someone has likely told you about the importance of developing “voice”—meaning “narrative voice” or a distinctive and comfortable way of telling your story. Authors with distinctive narrative voices are often the best out there and certainly sell books more easily than authors attempting to sound like someone else. It’s difficult to do, but it’s part of taking your work seriously.

In the same manner, you need to develop voices for your characters, lest they become nothing more than scraps of mundane dialogue on a page. A character with a distinct voice stays with us. A character with a generic or untrue voice fades with the closing of the book (Which is not to say he or she shouldn’t lie, but that the voice should be true to the character you’ve created).

When you read your stories out loud—you are reading them aloud aren’t you? —can you “do” a given character? Can you channel your hero through dinner? Can you mimic your villain for your friends? What’s distinctive about them? What makes them themselves?

There are plenty of factors to consider when developing a character’s voice. To begin, let’s look at the more elementary considerations.

Quelle langue est-ce que vous parlez?
“Tlaloc,” Gargareth said to the barmaid, the cold tones of Angaread curling around his tongue and giving Kythia the shivers. “Donnect, tordian?”
“Geness, tlalock,” the barmaid murmured. “Terreth, m’dani.”
“Geness, torgeth. M’dani ne tekko.” He turned back to Kythia. “Let’s go. She can’t help us.”

What the heck just happened?

The trouble with inventing a language is that there is no way any of your readers are going to understand, but that doesn’t make using extant languages any better. In fact, while foreign languages are great for giving your readers a feel of the culture and the world you’re giving them, they can be a very dangerous tool.

Every time your characters choose to speak a foreign language (a language other than that used in the text of the story), you risk losing your readers’ interest. By throwing new words at them, as we have above, with very little context, you are essentially creating dead space. No one knows what “Tlaloc. Donnect, tordian?” means—and at this point, no one cares.

The same is often true of using extant or existing languages. If you have a character that speaks Swedish, for example, and decide to make him speak Swedish in your story, he had better not carry on for too long. More than a phrase or so, unexplained, will be no better than fanciful Angaread.

If you do not speak a language fairly fluently, writing dialogue in it is not advisable. Writing, for example, “Je me sens comme million de mâles” does not mean the same thing as “I feel like a million bucks,” even if Babelfish and the French-English Dictionary say it does*. Without having a good understanding of the language, its forms and idioms, you’re bound to make mistakes. The same goes for dialect: You can’t learn “Southern” by watching “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

But let’s say you have a character who comes from another city or planet or dimension, and just simply is more comfortable speaking her native language or needs to when she encounters her countrymen or you just really think this is the best way to show the culture. There’s a few ways you can get around the mistakes made in the example above.

1. Be inside the bilingualist’s head. If we were to see Gargareth’s thoughts, instead of Kythia’s, we could translate the Angaread, since Gargareth knows what those crazy words mean.
2. Let the character try and interpret the language being spoken. This was used very successfully in James Clavell’s book, Shogun, where the main character did not speak Japanese, but was surrounded by Japanese speakers. If Kythia speculates on whether what the barmaid says is good or bad, or if she knows what Gargareth is going to say, your readers may be more interested in parsing it out.
3. Summarize. Instead of giving us a word-by-word rundown, tell us how the Angaread sounds, what Gargareth’s face looks like, and what the barmaid’s body language reflects as she replies.
4. Use only a few words. In many series, only one or two words are written as foreign languages. By doing this, you keep the “flavor” of having a foreign language, but lose the lengthy dead space of keeping the whole conversation untranslated. Good candidates for “flavor words”: swears, idioms, and concepts you cannot translate (e.g. “ennui,” “lagom,” or even “dude”)
5. Translate. This is the least suggested strategy, but it can work out. Let your character keep a running translation, or translate in their own minds.

Roles vs. People
Writing dialogue that fits your characters is not the same as writing dialogue that fits their roles. Before you begin, cast out notions of how a wizard, an alien overlord, a vampire or a princess of any variety sounds. You might discover that your character sounds remarkably similar, but this is not the same as using these accepted forms as a jumping off point.

Real-life example: I am working on a story with a wizard. I could look at tradition and set him up as gray-bearded, longhaired, wise but a bit crotchety, and overall respected. I could make him sound like Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore or Merlin, but then he wouldn’t be himself. Tranison, my wizard, has had a lot of time put into him and I wouldn’t want to waste that by giving him someone else’s lines. He’s old, yes, but he’s fastidious about his appearance and wears a Roman T instead of a knee-length beard. He drinks cherry wine. He’s smart and powerful, though not the smartest or most powerful, and he knows both. He thinks himself to be well in control of his emotions, but gets angry and shouts a lot when someone pushes his buttons. He doesn’t like the establishment of the wizards in my story, and yet sticks with them.

Which is better dialogue for Tranison?

1. "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them?"
2. “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
3. “If you all are going to rattle on about Death like a bunch of high-minded adolescents, kindly do it somewhere else, far from here. It’s a dreary topic with an obvious answer.”

No, it’s not as deep, but then, Death is not Tranison’s topic. He’s not the holy man of my story. It’s not his interest or his purpose. Even if he is a wizard.

Next month: More voice

Send comments to

About | Contact | Submit | Advertise | Donate | Archives | Staff

Survival Guides

Ways to Ruin Your Dialogue, Part 4

Oil Painting: The Exercises

They Aren't Rules, They're Guidelines


Send this page
to a friend!
Friends Email:
Your Email:

All articles and artwork are property of their respective owners.
No part of this publication may be reproduced without the author's consent.
Copyright 2004 Woodworks eZine