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Rhythm and Time – Part 4: Make Your Characters Sing

You can read the rest of this series here:

Part 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own
Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives
Part 3: Dialogue as Your Rhythm

Before I dive into dialogue again, I want to thank Overlord for filling in for me last week with his very cool article about how to write description. He filled in at the last minute, too. Thanks, Marc!

This week, my body is back from its mini-vacation, and my brain is back from the recesses of stupidity where it resided in a haze of cold medication and mucus for several days, and I’m ready to press on with my advice on adding rhythm and time to dialogue.

Beyond He Said, She Said

Knowing where to put dialogue in a story is only the first part of the equation. Once you get your characters talking to each other, you have a great opportunity to build character, setting, and plot through the way characters interact. Dialogue, when done properly, can be so enthralling that it captures your reader and doesn’t let go. And when you find each character’s unique voice, you’ll also find that person’s unique rhythm and time, too.

Build Character

Body Language
Most communication is non-verbal, so when your characters talk, don’t forget to add body language in the spaces where you need a beat or a pause. An introverted character might duck her eyes when she speaks. A confident character might put his feet up on a desk. A tense warrior might keep a hand on his blade. A woman flirting with a man might twist her hair around a finger or tilt her head to one side.

Personal Vocabulary
Think about the words your characters use. Does your character swear? Wax poetic? Habitually sass people? Is he noble, common, or somewhere in the middle? What about his or her job? A sailor might speak with a smattering of sea-going phrases, but maybe not—maybe he’s a refined musician hiding under a rough exterior. Mix things up. One of my villains doesn’t swear. She finds it repulsive, even though she has no problem killing people in horrific ways. Do the unexpected.

Individual Triggers
You can show how your character deals with strong emotion through slight changes in the way he or she talks. A normally reticent character might suddenly spew a tirade, or a normally outgoing character might retreat into silence when anxious. These small changes don’t need to be inconsistent with the character, especially if you can introduce a plausible reason for the changes—say, for example, a kind of “post traumatic stress” response.

Build Culture

Cadence
Beyond the obvious of creating an entire language or distinguishing people by accent, consider the cadence of different languages. Even just a simple change to your character’s style of speech can show a cultural distinction. Do your characters speak in short, clipped sentences? Do they reorder their descriptive phrases? Do they tend to speak in long verb phrases or passive voice? Even if you don’t create a whole language, you can use the cadence of dialogue to show how the speaker might speak another language.

Accent
You can use accents to distinguish characters, but it should be sparing. I used an accent in Ravenmarked, but I found it hard to keep writing, and some readers can find it hard to read. If you use an accent, read it out loud to see if it sounds natural. If not, eliminate it.

Idiomatic Phrases
Idiomatic phrases can be a great way to establish culture. Think about how English speakers say, “you’re pulling my leg” or “right as rain” or “show him the ropes”. To a non-native speaker, such phrases sound crazy. Can you create similar phrases to identify your culture? A caution—if you use them too much, they become silly, so just sprinkle into your dialogue.

Build Tension

Unrevealed Information
Dialogue is as much about what characters don’t say as what they do say. You can use internal dialogue with your point of view characters—let the reader know what they’re thinking through their thoughts—but what about the people they’re speaking to? What are those characters hiding? Show us through body language, unusual speech patterns, nervous tones, tics, etc. that other characters aren’t all they might seem to be through their spoken dialogue.

Unspoken Emotion
Put your hero and heroine in a room after a zombie attack or an evening with too much wine. What emotions hang in the air—lust, betrayal, love, anger, fear, distrust? Show us through the dialogue what the characters are feeling but might not be willing to say aloud, whatever the emotions might be. “I think we’re safe” is a simple sentence, but consider how the body language could indicate the emotions behind the statement. If all is quiet and he’s trying to seduce her, that’s one thing. If all is a little too quiet and he still has weapons drawn and pointed at the door, that’s another thing altogether.

Unfinished Thoughts
Few of us speak in complete sentences in an emergency. Let your characters speak in clipped, incomplete sentences when they’re under duress. Show us the tension in the scene by the unfinished thoughts of your characters. What don’t they say aloud when the things that are most important to them are on the line?

Once you’ve found your characters’ voices, written their scenes, and taken all of this advice into account, how do you know if your dialogue has a natural rhythm and time? Easy.

Read It Aloud

That’s the simplest—and best—advice I’ve ever given or received for writing realistic dialogue. If it sounds natural aloud, then it will likely sound natural on the page. And once your dialogue sounds natural, your characters will give voice to the rhythm and time of your overall story.

In two weeks we’ll be taking a rest.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    I have really, really enjoyed this series… like Jennie said the other day – I’ve learnt more through Amy’s articles in the last few months than I did in 2 years of A-level English Language and Literature.

    Thanks Amy 🙂

  2. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    Great article!!! You hit all the big points. For me, dialogue is fundamentally set in character. If you know your character’s well, you will know how they speak, what they do when they speak, and when they would be silent. You don’t have to think of who says what next, because they already know.

    On accents or dialects–word of caution I’ve heard batted around more than once. Careful you don’t create a power differential since we have a snobbishness about “Standard English”. In other writing and even in fantasy, this may create a racist tone. Best to describe the accent and leave the actual words alone: His words were gutteral but clipped to precise stops.

  3. […] two weeks, I’ll talk about the second aspect of rhythm and dialogue—the rhythm of speech. VN:F [1.9.20_1166]please wait…Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)Rhythm and Time: Dialogue – Part 3, […]

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