Monday Advice from Agents and Editors: Match Dialogue to Character


When asked by a blog commenter to name the major shortcomings he sees in manuscripts, developmental editor Alan Rinzler called out–

 same people         “dialogue that all sounds like the same person.”

Editor/author/writing guru James Scott Bell seconds that opinion, emphatically. He feels poor dialogue is “the fastest way to get an agent or editor to reject you, or readers to give you a yawn.”

Unique Characters Deserve Unique Voices

In his writing workshops, Bell teaches that the fastest way to improve a manuscript is to work on the dialogue… and differentiating dialogue among your cast of characters is high on his list of methods.

But before you can start working on what comes out of each character’s mouth–or head–you need to determine what makes each character unique.

Bell uses a voice journal, a free-form document of the character just yakking at me, until I truly “hear” them in a singular fashion.

Creating a Voice Journal

talkingIn The Art of War for Writers, Bell suggests you interview your characters, recording their responses in your “journal” verbatim, no editing or pausing to think about the wording of the response. Let your character talk. Naturally. Passionately, humorously or sarcastically. Slang and contractions are good here. Background, hopes and plans– all good.

You want to hear that response. Listen to not just the words the character uses but what wraps around those words, like

  • attitudes
  • emotions
  • speech patterns
  • lies
  • avoidance
  • repetitions

An example: In my middle-grade story, Celia and the Fox (launching December 8, 2014), the central character is a teen shapeshifter with attitude. The attitude comes through loud and clear in her inner dialogue, though her spoken dialogue reflects only a polite phrase from the story’s time period.

        On the evening before Grandfather, Remy and Lilette left for Bosras, Radilu announced that she’d changed her mind. She wanted to go to London with me. Everyone else seemed to know about this momentous decision, but no one had bothered to mention it to me. I wonder why?
        Remy gave me a look that told me to Do the Right Thing. Radilu closed her eyes as if she were afraid of what I might say.
        Blast and double crud. I couldn’t see any way out of this pickle.
        “What a grand idea!” I said.

In another blog, Rinzler gives a further example of unique character voice from master storyteller Elmore Leonard. Check it out here.

Alan Rinzler has edited for major book and magazine publishers, including Simon & Schuster, Bantam, and Rolling Stone. His years of experience spans the gamut from commercial to literary, and he’s also edited a wide range of memoirs, histories, biographies, among others. Authors he’s worked with include Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Andy Warhol, and Bob Dylan.

James Scott Bell served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written four craft books for Writer’s Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. His Write Your Novel From The Middle was an instant #1 Amazon bestselling writing book. A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angeles. He blogs every Sunday at The Kill Zone.

About Donna Maloy

History, Mystery... and sometimes a touch of Fantasy. Historical adventures for Teens, Tweens and Young Adults.
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