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Dialogue: Belonging to the Speaker.

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Dialogue must belong to the speaker. This can mean almost anything once the author has established a character, but it encompasses multiple dimensions and must be consistent. As an author you own the world you write. The cadence of speech, the language, what constitutes a curse or a meaningful gesture, what can and cannot be said in public, what is an insult, all of it is up to you. You determine them all.


What determines these things? Other sections of this website have said that we borrow tropes and structures from our genre, and that is certainly a starting point. We have said before that when a character speaks, we should have a pretty good idea in context who is speaking from what they say and why, even if there is no dialogue tag. How you as an author create a character determines many of the verbal qualities of that character independent of genre or current situation.


Sometimes we cannot escape the culture and time in which we live. At least not easily. I will say a word. Think of what comes to mind.


Tank.


Without context you could go many ways with this.

A vessel to hold water, usually underground.

A military land vehicle invented in the 1900’s.

A well armored military person who has high constitution. (Game speak)




All of them would be broadly right. How a character uses the word in your world could mean any one of them. However, if your setting is 1600’s France, tank, used to mean a military man or vehicle would be dialogue that does not make sense.


This is one example that dialogue, and terms used, have to match the setting that we are writing in.


This is true of culture too. For a modern take of a Connecticut Yankee In King Authors Court: If you take a modern American speaker, and place them in the English court of 1800, and they greet the king by saying “What’s Up?” slurred to a more general “'Sup?” they would be using dialogue which is out of place and strange. So too in your writing if you establish a period dialect, you cannot shift that dialect without drawing attention to it.


If you have established that to speak of personal relationships is taboo in your science fiction culture, and it is frowned on all the time, without exception, but you need to teach the reader the relationships of the main characters, having them say it to one another would be breaking a rule you set. The dialogue would not belong in the characters mouth. UNLESS…. You are creating a character who is trying to demonstrate how they buck the system.


Then you have the ability with dialogue to both create the system and character.

Be careful borrowing famous sentence structures. “Borrow you should not. Strange it would be.” Yoda anyone? Everyone in the genre would recognize it. That’s not to say you CAN’T use this termini ology but everyone would know why you are doing it, so you have to have a reason. It doesn’t belong to your character, it belongs to Yoda.

Beware of sudden character tonal shifts. Say you are writing about a priest, who constantly quotes scripture, is always crossing themselves, citing small prayers, and is timid. Suddenly in one scene they’re gruff, curse for no clear reason, utter not one prayer… they are not themselves. If the author has not established a good reason for the sudden change their dialogue no longer matches their character. It doesn’t belong to them.


Characters who um, ah, and uhhh, all the time, who suddenly don’t use vocal pauses will sound like a different character.


Once you begin to establish how your character should sound, and what voice belongs to them, you can also learn slowly how to tweak it to demonstrate internal character arcs and changes. If over the course of a novel a character who has never spoken up for themselves suddenly does, this is not only in character, it can be the major turning point of a growth arc.


Pay attention to your setting, borrow carefully from modern dialects, be consistent, and don’t draw attention of your readers to out of place dialogue, unless you mean to.


Most importantly always remember, writers write. Get out there and get writing.

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