I learn best through observation and examples, so I made a point of reading lots in the realm of middle-grade (which you should be doing anyway, duh). When I came across a book with particularly great dialogue, I’d read those sections over again. I’d try to pinpoint what about these characters’ voices made them so enticing, and how I could apply these methods to my own writing. I checked audio books out of the library and listened to them while I commuted to work, made long drives to visit friends out of town, and did boring stuff around the house like scrubbing the kitchen floor. There was something about hearing dialogue performed out loud that really helped the nuances sink in. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that I always read everything I’ve written out loud. But I think it’s especially important for dialogue. You’ll be able to hear if it sounds unnatural or just doesn’t flow.)
During this time, someone at a writing conference passed along her favorite tip for dialogue. You should, she told me, be able to take any line of dialogue out of context and be able to tell which character said it—their speech styles should be that distinctive. This was great advice, but not advice I agreed with in its entirety. I mean, come on, if your character says something like, “No,” or “I’d like a glass of water,” do you really need to go out of your way to make that super-duper distinctive (“Nay, forsooth, my friends,” “Gimme a glass of water or I’ll smash your face, punk.”)? I think if you get carried away with this, your dialogue can start sounding over-the-top, and you’ll just end up annoying your readers. But, in general, this has been a useful tip for me. I certainly think you should be able to identify large chucks of dialogue or any especially significant dialogue using this method.
Most helpfully, I made a list of my major characters and what I thought their speech style should be like given their background and personality. Did they talk fast or slow? Were the thoughts expressed in a scattered or orderly fashion? Did they use a lot of expressions and if so, what kind? Did they have a speech impediment? Stutter or slur their words?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ivy’s Ever After, it’s a fractured fairy tale about a princess and a dragon who team up against a (not-so-nice) handsome prince. (You can read Chapter 1 at my website, http://www.ivyseverafter.com/.) Here’s how I tried to distinguish the speech styles of several characters:
- Ivy, my princess, is far from a proper lady. She’s sassy, opinionated, bold—and her dialogue shows it. She doesn’t stand on formality, so she often uses colloquialisms or speaks in sentence fragments. She doesn’t hide emotion, as a proper princess would—when she gets angry or excited, the exclamation points start coming out! Sometimes she interrupts other characters if she doesn’t like what they have to say. (Oh, how I love this feisty princess—but no one said she had the best manners in the world.)
- Elridge, my dragon, is not your typical dragon. He’s timid rather than ferocious. He stutters when he gets nervous. He uses the expression, “Dear me,” a lot, often uttered at faint-hearted moments, sort of the way Piglet was always muttering, “Oh d-d-dear,” in those Winnie the Pooh cartoons I loved when I was a kid.
- Ivy’s father, the king, speaks formally, as you would expect of a royal monarch. He tends to use complete sentences and proper sentence structure, and his vocabulary is a little more sophisticated than that of the other characters.
- Ivy’s fairy godmother, Drusilla, is overly excitable. She tends to get caught up in a single train of thought and ramble on and on. . . . Can you say run-on sentence?
- The trolls in Ivy’s world live in large underground caverns. I wanted them to sound different than their human counterparts—they live a very different subterranean existence, after all—so I peppered their dialogue with a lot of rock- and cave-related insults and expressions: “Boulder-brain!” “Dripstone!” “Feldspar fungus!”