by Ann H. Gabhart
Several years ago I had a part time job that allowed me to work from home, one I hoped would give me more time to write. It was a bear of a job. As the substitute coordinator for my county’s school system, I spent hours on the phone scheduling replacements for absent teachers.
Okay, so you’re wondering what that has to do with writing, and you’re right except most everything we do can circle around to give us creative fuel. And while doing my job, I did discover something that perhaps helped me when writing my stories. To schedule the substitutes, I spoke with many people who were only names on a paper to me. Even though we had never met, some of us became great telephone buddies. I knew their voices and they knew mine. I often wondered, if these people were all gathered in a room, whether I could match names with faces without hearing them speaking.
Actually, when I did happen to meet any of these people, they often didn’t match the image I had conjured up while talking to them on the phone. Even though that was true, the experience helped me realize what a person says and how he or she says it definitely awakens an impression in the listener’s mind. The same is surely true for our readers when they read dialogue in our stories. While we generally give hints as to what our characters look like–tall or short, blonde or brunette, etc.–to help our readers “see” the characters, what the characters say and how they say it can sharpen that image.
Each of our characters needs a way of talking that matches their personality and life. For example, a truck driver and a college professor most likely won’t sound anything alike, nor will a child and an adult. This is not to say you can never have your characters talk in unexpected ways, but if so, you need a valid explanation of their out of character way of speaking.
In my new release, These Healing Hills, a mountain boy and a city woman shouldn’t sound the same. In the following bit of dialogue, can you tell which is which? If you can’t, I’ve failed in giving my characters individual voices.
“A bit. Could you point me the way to the Hyden Hospital?”
“I reckon you’re one of Mrs. Breckinridge’s brought-in nurses. Do you catch babies?”
“I’m here to train to be a midwife. At the hospital. Is it much farther?”
“Not all that far, but night might catch you. You best follow me. Weren’t nobody down there in town to show you the way?”
“I was supposed to follow somebody named Jeb, but I didn’t keep up.”
Of course here you also know the identity of the characters by what they say as well as how they say it.
If you eavesdrop on actual people talking or hear the echo of your own conversations, you realize rules of grammar don’t necessarily apply when we’re talking. We speak in fragmented sentences. We leave out words, use the wrong words, repeat words, do all sorts of things to make our English teachers grab their red pencils. But that’s how dialogue is. It needs to sound natural.
An accurate ear for dialogue is a gift, but practice can help you write more natural dialogue. One thing sure, we love it when characters start talking in the stories we read and in the stories we write.
Ann H. Gabhart is the author of over thirty novels, including her Shaker series, novels about family life and mystery (as A.H. Gabhart). She has three children and nine grandchildren and enjoys country life in Kentucky. Visit www.annhgabhart.com to find out more about Ann and her books.