Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 2)

[This is a continuation of a previous post: Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 1)]

Dialect and regional accents are especially tricky to write. It used to be that writers tried to show dialect and accent through the laborious use of phonetic spellings and a blizzard of apostrophes. Today, though, we readers don’t like having to decipher the author’s personal code. Nor do we writers need to take the time to create the code. It’s better to use colloquialisms and broken language to show regional differences. For example, “I done died and gone to heaven.” Not an apostrophe or phonetic spelling in sight, though you know immediately the speaker is not a high-toned college professor from Boston.

If your character has a foreign accent, you don’t have to bludgeon a reader with it. All that is necessary to portray an accent is to say the character speaks with an accent. If you wish, you can use phrasing to remind the reader of the accent, such as, “We will go to the store. No?”

This snippet from Daughter Am I shows Crunchy’s difficulty with English:

“Mary’s trying to find out about her grandparents,” Kid Rags said. “His name was James Angus Stuart.”

Crunchy shook his head. “Don’t know no James Agnes Stuart.”

“What about Regina DeBrizzi Stuart?” Mary asked.

“Don’t know her neither.”

talkingDialogue is an artificial construct. Dialogue does not mimic conversation but instead gives readers the impression of realistic conversation.

Books on how to write dialogue often suggest listening to people talk to learn how to write dialogue. Seems like good advice, but have you ever truly listened? “We . . . um . . . we, like . . . you know . . . we stammer and like we repeat ourselves and um . . . you know.”

Even when we speak coherently, we don’t converse. We lecture. We tell long, boring, convoluted stories. We interrupt others and talk over them. We use clichés. We tell jokes that take forever to get to the punch line. None of which helps us write dialogue. If characters in books talked the way we talk in real life, who would bother reading? We want our characters to sound like us, just not talk like us. We also want their conversations to be witty, to the point, and conflicted.

In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it—it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Our characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have us and our late night epiphanies on their side. We can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.

And get it right we must. Good dialogue advances a story and shows character interacting with other characters. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements.

The following is another excerpt from Daughter Am I showing the use of dialogue.

*     *     *

Mary noticed, for the first time, her father’s receding hairline, the deep crinkles at the corners of his brown eyes. Soon he would be as old as Kid Rags, Teach, and Crunchy.

Tears stung her eyes at the thought of her father living alone in a dingy hovel, and she vowed she would not let that happen.

Realizing the silence was stretching out awkwardly, she opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a palm to forestall her.

“I don’t want to know what you’re doing,” he said. “Whatever it is, I know it’s something you feel you have to do. I thought you should be aware you’re upsetting your mother.”

“I don’t mean to.”

He heaved himself out of the chair. “That’s all I came to say.”

“I’m glad you stopped by,” she said. “I planned on calling you later anyway to tell you I’m going to be away for a few days.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish, but I suppose you know your own mind.”

You are so wrong. I don’t know anything.

He walked to the door, paused with his hand on the knob for a second, then turned to face her.

“I love you,” he said softly.

She swallowed. “Oh, Dad. I love you too.”

He opened the door. “Be careful, okay, honey? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”


This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Lisping Dialogue

I used to read books about writing — dozens of them.  Several mentioned that mispelled words and apostrophes are no longer in style to show speech defects or accents — such dialogue is difficult to read.  To denote dialect, one needs to show speech patterns from the specific area, such as “It’s not far, just down the road a piece.” Tells you a bit about the character, and it’s easy to read. Another suggestion was to use the misspellings and apostrophe’s to set the character’s accent in the reader’s mind, then switch to normal spellings.  I heeded this particular bit of advice in my upcoming novel, Daughter Am I. To get the full meaning of the excerpt, you need to know that the Scourge and Butcher Boy once worked for the Outfit, aka the Mob. 

“Who ith it, my love?” A rotund little old man wearing plaid bermuda shorts and a pink polo shirt appeared at the door beside the woman.

“Hello, Wallace,” Happy said.

Mary bit back a giggle. This was the Scourge? This gnome of a man with twinkling eyes and a lisp?

Wallace peered through the screen at Happy. “Do I know you?”

“Don’t you remember? We used to work for the same outfit.”

The woman’s face lit up. “Oh, how nice. Won’t you come in?”

She made a move to open the door, but Wallace put out a hand to stop her.

“That won’t be necessary. These folks were just leaving.”

“Hey!” Happy protested. “What’s the big deal? All we want is some information about Butcher Boy.”

“The supermarket in town has a nice butcher,” the old woman said, “but you can’t really call him a boy. He has to be at least forty.”

Wallace patted the woman’s arm. “Let me handle this, sweetie.” He opened the door, slipped through, and closed it behind him. Motioning for Mary and her gang to follow, he headed for the road.

“This your bus?” he asked.

A couple of editors mentioned that I was inconsistent, that I should have carried the lisp throughout the scene.  It was only two pages, but still, that’s a lot of th’s.

“That won’t be nethethary. Thethe fokth were jutht leaving.”


 “Thith your buth?”

So, when you read Daughter Am I (you are going to read when it’s released, right?) and notice the inconsistency, just remember how kind I was being to your eyes.

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The Scan Test: Paragraph Size, Italics, and Dialogue

Appearances count. This might sound like grade school all over again, but I’m not talking about the neatness of your work. I know your work looks great; you are or you want to be a professional, and you act like it. What I am talking about is the overall appearance of the printed work; what the book, blog, or article looks like as a whole.

You have a great beginning, so you sit back smugly thinking that all a reader has to do is pick up your work and they will be hooked. Not so fast. Even before people read that first line, they quickly leaf through the book or scan the article. If they don’t like what they see, that fabulous first paragraph will never be read.

So, what is it they are looking for?

First, potential readers look at paragraph size. If the paragraphs are too long, they feel that the work will be ponderous; if the paragraphs are too short, they think it will be lightweight. And if all paragraphs are more or less the same size, they get an immediate impression of stagnation. An experienced writer knows how to vary the lengths of the paragraphs according to the flow of the story. Since everything in a story is connected to everything else, the size of your paragraphs should be connected to the rhythm of the story: short paragraphs for action scenes, longer ones for a respite. A variety of paragraph sizes from one to ten lines tell readers you will keep their attention.

Second, potential readers look for italics. An occasional italicized word is good for emphasis. An occasional italicized sentence is a way of indicating the character’s thoughts. But when there are long italicized paragraphs, or even entire italicized chapters, readers lose interest. Italics tell them that those passages are not part of the story, and can be skipped. So if you know most readers won’t read those passages, may even use the sight of them as an excuse not to read the entire work, figure out another way to present the material. I know that some experienced writers fall into the trap of italicizing flashbacks, but they (or their editors) should know better.

Third, potential readers look at dialogue. Long dialogue looks like preaching, and few readers are interested in your sermons. And long sections of one or two word dialogue looks inane. And generally is inane:

“How are you.”
“Fine, how about you?”
“Can’t complain.”

Even worse is using dialect. Too many apostrophes say that you do not know how to write dialogue. It’s better to use colloquialisms like “That dang fiddle-foot don’t rightly know what he’s talking about.” It gets the point across, and is easier to read.

Now that you’ve passed the scan test, you are ready to hook your reader.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.