Dialogue Maketh the Character

bike pic

Excerpt from Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

Are these examples true?

“Sufferin’ succotash!” she mumbled.

“I don’t give a damn,” he hissed.

You can hiss “sufferin’ succotash”, but you can’t mumble it and you can mumble “I don’t give a damn”, but you can’t hiss it. The sentence has no sibilants.

If we are going to use attributives (she mumbled/he hissed, she said/he said) then we must ensure they match the dialogue. But if the dialogue itself indicates hissing or mumbling, then attributives become superfluous.

He started to stutter. “How . . .? How . . .?”

Stuttering is starting. Therefore, saying that a character started to stutter is redundant. Why do we need to tell our readers that he stuttered when the character’s dialogue shows us? We’re always being told “show don’t tell”, so we must remember that that carries into dialogue as well as into description.

Some how-to-write books tell us not to use attributives at all, even the he said/she saids. But then how are we ever going to show who’s speaking? It’s not as difficult as you might think: We get to know our characters intimately through ques­tioning them, applying astro­logical traits (or whatever works for you) to them, and most important, we develop extensive back stories for them.

Let’s have a look at a conversation involving three individuals:


“That’s a nice bike.”

“Thank you.”

“I’d love to take it for a ride. May I?”

“Not without me.”

“Let’s go then. I’ll just take it around the parking lot if you don’t mind.”

“Not without a license. Do you have one?”

“No, but I used to have one.”

“You can’t drive without a license.”

“Yes, I can. Watch.”

What do we know about these people from Conversation (1)? Nothing more than somebody-or-other has a nice bike and somebody-or-other else wants to drive it and you only know there’s a third party in there because I told you. Everybody sounds exactly the same. In fact, they talk like the writer.

Now I’m going to tell you who the characters are: a Francophone biker chick, a Pentecostal minister’s wife, and a veteran male police officer.

I’m going to change the vocabulary and the syntax. Let’s see what we come up with.


“Afternoon, ma’am! Very nice ride you got yourself there.”

“Why thank you, officer.”

“Haven’t been on an Indian for more years than I’d like to say. Think the Rev would let me take it for a spin?”

“As much I comply to nearly everything my husband tells me, I allow him no authority as to who rides my bike. You can certainly ride it. But not without me.”

“Round the parking lot?”

Hein, cochon! You got a license for dat?”

“Claudette! You’re still driving that piece of shit Harley! I can’t believe it. And since when did you ever worry about somebody breaking the law? Huh?”

“Go away from him, madame. He put my old man en prison. He got no license. He can’t drive that bike!”

“You think ? Watch.”

It’s quite obvious who is speaking in Conversation (2) and not one attributive has been used.

You might be wondering why I had the police officer appear to know the woman’s husband, therefore her, yet address her as “ma’am”. If I hadn’t told you he was a police officer, would you have been able to surmise it through his use of ma’am?

Try it yourself by switching to a male biker, a Roman Catholic nun, and a young female Francophone police officer. How about making up a scene using a 15-year-old girl from a disadvantaged family, the girl’s mother, and our veteran male police officer?

Use accents sparingly. The eye trips on misspelled words and having to deal with them throughout a whole book is tiring. To inform the reader that the speaker has an accent, first use a phrase in the speaker’s language that might be easily understood by the reader, e.g., “Hein, cochon!” [Hey, pig!] (Foreign words and phrases which have not yet been accepted into English as standard are in italics. Or, since this entire passage is in italics, the foreign words, phrases, and any emphasized words are in roman.) Later, use expres­sions common in the speaker’s language, but write them in English. If you listen to accents frequently — and I suggest you make a habit of it (check out news-talk radio stations) — you will detect a melody unique to each language and if you’re at all musical, this should help you enormously. There is no need to misspell words at all, just play their tune the way they put their words together. It won’t take long for the reader to accept the accent of the speaker.

Next post June 13.

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction): http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8


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