Words, words, words. We want characters to converse because we like to see them interact and conflict with one another. Too much description drowns a story.
How do characters speak? I'm not talking about mouths flapping and vocal chords. No, I'm talking about more than that. Not just what a character says but how they say it.
To Accent or Not to Accent?
Don't be fooled, everyone has an accent. If you hear someone say, "He had an accent," it's a redundant statement. We are all influenced by the people around us, the places we have been, and the things we have seen. I can't even pinpoint some of the phrases and pronunciations I have picked up. It is all such a muddle.
It can be very tempting to try and write a character's accent. After all, you see it done in books often enough. Not always in a successful manner, however.
I say, skip the accented words and focus on a colloquialism. All over the world, even in different areas of the same country, people use different terms for the same thing, like "candy" and "sweetie," or "cookie" and "biscuit." Non-food-related terms too, but my head is in my stomach right now.
Slang is also very unique to a place, generation, or even a specific character. Colloquialisms and slang are tell-tale signs of a character without having to resort to accenting every one of their words.
If y' kno' wh't I me-yun, bra'. (What accent is that?)
Adverbs Make the Children Cry
Adverbs (randomly, naughtily, sneakily) worm their way into our sentences, fester on our tongues, and reproduce.
They come so naturally when we speak. We don't even notice that they're creeping up on us, holding us hostage. If adverbs can slip into our speech so easily, what's to stop them from plaguing our writing?
No big deal, you might think. After all, what's the harm? If adverbs are natural when a person speaks, don't they give more authenticity to the voice of a character?
On this point, I agree and disagree. Adverbs are naughty things. They give the impression of strengthening a sentence by adding more detail, when in fact they weaken what you are trying to say.
1) He walked quickly.
2) He quickened his pace.
The second of the two sentences has more punch. The first seems flimsy and watered down. The second sentence also shows more than tells, a very important factor in writing.
What about using adverbs in a characters speech?
This is where my feelings waver. When a character is speaking, sometimes adverbs can work.
'I especially liked it when you mooned the taco.'
Adverbs can be a part of a character's speech pattern, but when a book is written in first person and the narration of the character is constant, you need to watch out. Too many adverbs water down the tension and destroy the punch of a sentence.
I couldn't understand why she would willingly put herself in a position like that. I beat my fist against the wall, groaning at the situation and not at the pain that shot through my knuckles. Slowly, I began to pick up the pastels that scattered the floor. They left soft purple and green smudges that I could easily have removed with a wet cloth, but I hadn't the energy. I just tossed all the art supplies into their box and cursed strenuously.
You can remove every one of those adverbs and it does not subtract from the impact or coherence of the narrative. Try reading it, both with and without them, and see if you can feel the difference.
Adverbs are also something you often see tagged on at the end of a character's dialogue.
'I am a genius,' she said, smugly.
'Don’t get too cocky,' he said, grumpily.
Tagging adverbs on at the end of a sentence may seem like you are clarifying how a character is speaking, but you have to remember that the subtext in words will often mean that an adverb is unnecessary.
If a character proclaims she is a genius, the reader will be aware of her pride and self-esteem. Tagging adverbs on the end is just another way of telling, which is not something you want to do after every line of dialogue.
Which Came First: the Speaker or the Said?
'I am not in the mood for hanky-panky,' James said.
'I offered you a handkerchief,' said Tim.
I had assumed for a very long time that "he said, she said" was the norm. I thought that "said she, said he" was very old fashioned and wasn't used much any more.
I was wrong. After looking through the Harry Potter novels, I noticed that the characters' dialogue tags are much like Tim's.
'I am the modern quintessential wizard,' said Harry.
'When I look in the mirror, I see socks,' said Dumbledore. 'They would go well with my high-heeled, buckled boots.'
These are not actual quotes from the Harry Potter books, but what I sense from the subtext of the novels. They are like the actual text in the sense that the dialogue ends with, "said Harry."
This adds a unique style to the way in which the book is read, than if it were, "James said." I did a poll a while back where I asked writers which they prefer, "he said" or "said he."
To my surprise, it isn't just J.K. Rowling who harnesses what I had deemed to be old fashioned. The results were almost even, to the point where "said James" won out by a couple percent. I found this very interesting.
Just the situation of the character's name and the word "said" manages to alter the style of the writing and how it is read. I suppose it is just personal preference in the end. You may want the character's name to be closer to the end of the dialogue, so that the reader knows straight away who is speaking, but it also depends on how you want your dialogue to be read and what suits the rhythm of your story.
Colloquialisms, slang, adverbs, subtext, and how something is said are all things to consider when strengthening your writing.
How do you tackle speech in fiction?