How to Write Dialogue With Distinction

You will find plenty of sound advice in these pages on how to write dialogue for your novel. But one skill that it is essential to master is writing dialogue with distinction.

What do I mean by that? I mean stopping all the characters in your novel from sounding the same.

Every character in a novel is unique. They all look different. They all think and act in their individual ways. And it should be no different with the way they speak.

Learning to write dialogue with distinction is all about learning how to give each of the characters in a novel a unique voice.

And it is actually very simple - you simply need to ensure that every fictional character's speaking voice is a natural extension of their personality.

Here are the four questions you must ask yourself when trying to find a distinctive voice for each of the people in your story...

1. Who Are They?

You will have already developed the characters before starting to write your novel. You will know who they are and what makes them tick. (And you learn how to do that, of course, in the section on Creating Characters.)

And so, when putting words into the characters' mouths, you must simply make those words fit their personalities.

  • The kindly old lady won't say anything too mean
  • The mean old man won't be terribly kind when he opens his mouth
  • The big-head will brag
  • The joker will have everyone laughing
  • The optimist - well, you get the idea

There is a big danger when writing dialogue in a novel of making the characters say what you want them to say, because it fits the purposes of the plot. Don't do this.

If you ever find yourself writing a line of dialogue for a character and experiencing a niggling doubt that you are putting words into their mouth that they would never say, stop.

2. What Is their Personal Vocabulary?

Writing dialogue with distinction - or stopping all the characters sounding the same - is not just about making a character's words fit their personalities.

We are all influenced by our environments, too, and so it is also important to make a character's voice fit their backgrounds and occupations.

  • An educated character will have more words at his or her disposal than a not-so-educated one.
  • A dockworker will probably swear more than a school teacher - and won't care as much (or know as much) about grammar.
  • A physics professor will likely throw the odd scientific term into his or her speech.
  • An artist will have plenty of words to describe colors.

Note that it is perfectly acceptable to use bad grammar and poor word choice in dialogue. It won't reflect badly on you as a writer, because it is understood that it is the character speaking.

Just don't go over the top. If a character's natural way of speaking is to use a curse word in every sentence, for example, you don't need to include every single one. The odd expletive here and there will be sufficient to give the reader the idea.

3. What Are They Like at a Party?

Some people can keep jawing away all night to whoever cares to listen. For others, the most they say at a party is when they are making their excuses to leave.

To stop all the characters in a novel from sounding the same, you need to reflect who they are as people...

  • If the leading man is the strong and silent type, keep his lines brief and to the point.
  • If another character likes the sound of his own voice, let him monopolize conversations.
  • If a third character is terribly shy, make her speak only when she is spoken to - and reluctantly even then.

Of course, this is really all just common sense. But so, too, are most things about learning how to write dialogue.

4. Who Are They Talking to?

When writing dialogue in a novel, it is important to think about not only what the characters say, but who they say it to.

In real life, we all speak differently to different people, and it should be no different with a character in a novel...

  • A cop will have one way of talking to his colleagues
  • Another way of talking to his superiors
  • And when he's visiting his grandmother, he'd better watch his mouth

Of course, all rules are there to be broken, and having a character talk in precisely the same way to everyone, no matter what the circumstances demand, could be the key defining trait of a character with poor social skills.

But this is the exception that proves the rule.

Giving each character a distinctive voice is one of the most important lessons there is when learning how to write dialogue. Get it right and it should be possible for the reader to tell who is speaking just from the words.

Next Step: So far in this section you have learned...

  • The importance of conversations in a novel being in conflict (this is the King of Dialogue Rules).
  • Three keys to Writing Good Dialogue - giving it a purpose, keeping it concise, and making it flow.
  • How to stop all the characters from sounding alike.

Now it is time to learn how to write authentic dialogue...

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