Friday, March 21, 2014

Whose Line Is It?

14:46 Edinburgh (Regent Road) to Stirling bus station via Kirkliston, Bridgend, Linlithgow and Polmont
Photo by Ingy the Wingy, via Flickr
If you’ve ever taught high-school English, you’re familiar with the time-honored dictum that characters reveal themselves through (1) what they do; (2) what they say; and (3) what other characters say about them. This article is concerned with Item 2.

You can tell us – in detail – what a character looks like. You can even tell us what kind of voice a character has (squeaky, gruff, sexy, etc.). But the single biggest challenge for the writer is the question: how much information can you convey about a given character on the strength of dialogue alone? Ideally, your readers should be able to distinguish which character is speaking on the strength of diction, grammar, and syntax, and speech mannerisms indicative of age, gender, and cultural background.

To illustrate the point, I’ve prepared two sample scripts.

Conversation One:

I want to go to the train station. Is this the right bus stop?

Yes, but you’ve just missed it.

That’s unlucky. How long will it be until another bus comes along?

According to the schedule, it will be about a quarter of an hour.

Do these buses usually run on time?

That depends on how heavy the traffic is. If you’re in a hurry you could take a taxi.

That would be expensive.

You’re right. If you have the time to spare, it’s more economical to wait.

I wish there was someplace to sit down. My feet are tired.

Now the quiz:

1. How many speakers do you detect here?

2. Based solely on the content of the dialogue, what personal information can you deduce about the speakers?

Ok, let’s try this again.

Conversation Two:

Please, I want the train station. This is the right bus stop?

Aye, mate, but if you’re wanting the Number 5 to Kirkliston, you’ve just missed it.

Ach, no! Will another bus come soon?

The timetable is posted here on the wall. Let me see if I can make sense of it for you. Oh yes, here you are: the next Number 5 should be along in about fifteen minutes.

These buses run on time?

Only when you’re running late. No, seriously: the traffic’s hellish this time of day when the schools let out. I have to leave my flat at half past two every day to pick up my kid at half past three.

Sorry: I couldn’t help overhearing. If you’re in a hurry, you could always take a taxi.

I wouldn’t advise it, pal, unless you’re a merchant banker.

That’s very true. It really is shocking what cab drivers charge these days! My late-husband would be scandalized. If you aren’t pushed for time, it’s probably worth waiting.

Ma! Ma! I’m tired. I wanna sit down.

Ok, now take the quiz again.

See the difference? ‘Nuff said.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. An excellent, simple and effective illustration of the value of personalised dialogue, Debby.

  2. Great example, Debby. Though it does remind me why I dislike "voices in the dark" writing - give us some props and actors, and light the stage, please. :-)

  3. Good example of giving your characters character. Take away the attributions and see how clearly you've depicted them. Great exercise.

  4. Good examples of how to make sure your characters each have their own ways of speaking. As Polly said, you should be able to follow along without tags (although once you've got the words down, it's always a good idea to get some action in there to ground the reader.) I'm giving a class on dialogue next month, I start the exercise with dialogue only, then build from there.

  5. Now you're, um, well, talking, Debby ... narrative always brings me down ... I love a dialogue rich story.

  6. Excellent exercise, Debby. I know distinguishing characters through their speech patterns is always a challenge to me. I have to carefully look at each line of dialogue when I am doing my second and third drafts of my books.

  7. Making each character unique is the hardest part of dialogue. I started making notes as I character build as to the way each character speaks and have it in front of me when I write, then again when I edit.

  8. Were I to pull this book off the shelf in a brick-and-mortar store (or view its interior on Amazon) and peruse its content, I would upon reading the first dialogue passage return it to the shelf. Why? It's impossible to ascertain how many clones are speaking, and all demonstrate the same personality—or total lack thereof.

    On the other hand, the second passage intrigues me. It seems we have a mother and child (might the mother be German?) who seem to be un an unfamiliar place, an apparent Aussie (or perhaps sailor), and what sounds like an older widow. The child appears to be tired...from a long trip? My questions beg for answers, and I likely will buy the book so I can see what this is all about.

    Yes, Debby, dialogue makes or breaks a story. This is a great post!

    1. Not Aussie. (I'm guessing you're getting that from "mate", but Aussies would be unlikely to say "aye". It would be "Yeah, mate..." or "Yep, mate...".)

    2. A sailor, maybe? Unfortunately, my exposure to Aussies is limited to Keith Urban and Crocodile Dundee. Don't know if either is a realistic representation...

  9. Excellent post, Debby. A great and simple way to show how important it is not to make your characters all sound alike!

  10. deborah turner harrisMarch 22, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    Many thanks, everyone! Producing those two contrasting pieces of dialogue was tough sledding.


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