Making Your Dialogue Sparkle

Author Rob Armstrong is a former award-winning CBS newsman and college professor. He is the author of fourteen books, including his latest, SISTERS OF THE SWORD, seventh in the Old Spy thriller series. The book involves a race against time to stop a network of deadly and dedicated female jihadists operating in the UK. His non-fiction includes the popular travel guide, GOLFING IN IRELAND. Armstrong draws from his thirty-two year career in news to add grit and reality to his stories. One reviewer said his novels read like they were ripped from this morning’s newspaper.

How your characters talk brings them to life. It makes them real. It tells the reader what they sound like. It provides insight into how the characters interact with each other.


Unique voices are essential to successful storytelling. Consider the dialogue-based images you take away from reading Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN, John Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH, Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or Ernest Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES.


Writing compelling and interesting dialogue is not an accident, nor is it simply putting words onto the lips of your characters.


“See Spot run,” said Dick.


“He runs fast,” said Jane.


While, technically, that’s two characters talking to each other, it’s hardly dialogue. It’s boring and trite. That does not mean that every sentence must be worthy of a Nobel Prize, but every sentence needs to be considered in relation to the character who’s saying it.


For the author, the key is in knowing characters intimately. Who are they? Where do they come from? What’s their background?


During my years as a broadcast journalist I became keenly aware of people’s speech – not just the words, but how they say them and how they sound saying them.


An African-American farmer in rural Mississippi is unlikely to say, “My wife is preparing a sumptuous repast for our luncheon.” That character is more likely to say, “Mama’s fixin’ us up a mess of greens an’ cornbread.”


Sometimes the author needs to decide if, and when, to translate what a character has said. Then the question become whether to paraphrase or use the quote and then explain it. An example might be an interview with a Brooklyn detective. “The perp was pronounced on the stoop,” he said. I’d have to ask myself how many of my readers would understand what he said without help from me.


My general rule is that I try not to write about people from places I’ve never been. There are certainly some writers who have very skillfully created characters from places or cultures  with which they are not very familiar. I find I run the risk of venturing into cliché or caricature if I’m unfamiliar with the character’s background.


In an early set of sketches for my book HACKED, I considered making a group of hackers North Koreans. By the time I’d roughed out a few pages it was obvious it didn’t work. I had never been to Asia, much less Korea. The characters were wooden and phony. Any seasoned reader would have known that in a heartbeat. The answer was to put characters that I knew into places that I knew.


Place is important to character development and the character’s speech. Regionalisms in the US and foreign linguistic peculiarities tell a lot about a character. It also tells readers if the author is authentic and has done his/her research. Some people in Colorado, for example, pronounce the word “creek” as “crick.” In Britain, the “boot” is the trunk of a car. In Australia, a swagman is a vagabond.


If an author is creating a character who is, say, a cop, lawyer, physician or Wall Streeter, each occupation comes with its own jargon or slang. Writing dialogue involving such characters inevitably involves using some of that jargon.


Intimate familiarity with each character requires the writer to conjure up an image of the person speaking. It doesn’t work if James Earl Jones sounds like Larry the Cable Guy or James Bond has a cockney accent.


Good dialogue is critical to good storytelling. For the writer it requires research, firsthand experience, institutional knowledge, a good ear and a keen sense of language.


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