Sunday, July 7, 2013

12 Ways People Use Words: more on dialogue

We all know that we need to make characters sound different, we need to be careful with dialect, and we need to use appropriate vocabulary. Pretty broad stuff.

Well, here are a dozen other real-people traits that are discussed in length in The Theatre Student, Playwriting by Peter Kline, that can improve characterization through dialogue:

1. Use of subordination:
Some people are good at organizing five or six ideas in one sentence. For example, 'I remember when I was young, my father would take us fishing early in the morning, and whilst we dangled our legs over the pier and watched the sunrise, he would tell us stories about the old fisherman who built this town.' Other people try and fail: 'When I was young, maybe five or six, Dad would take us fishing, and we watched the sunrise - we'd be sitting on the pier, see, and, anyway . . .' Some people use conjunctions to string ideas together: 'I was young and Dad would take us fishing and we sat on the pier and watched the sunrise and Dad would tell us stories.' Other people stick with one idea at a time: 'We were kids, yeah? Boy, Dad used to go on about the old geezers.' 

2. Use of imagery:
Remember the different ways people learn? Those who aren't fond of the good old textbooks might like visual, audio, or hands-on media. The same applies to how people speak. Kline suggests that original and spontaneous people tend to use imagery in language. One of the senses usually dominates, but some people naturally combine sight, sound, and textual experiences (called synesthesia) and express these in language. 

3. Irony vs sentimentality:
Getting a sarcastic or cynical character together with a sincere one can lead to sparkling, conflict-filled dialogue.
A: What a beautiful night.
B: Yeah, if you're into mosquitos and midges.

4. Acuteness:
Some people just 'get it' while other people need everything spelled out before they understand the logic behind what the other person is saying. Classic one-liners are often spoken by acute thinkers and talkers. But be careful of characters delivering the perfect line every time. Most real people just can't do that. 

5. Thinking vs reacting:
A: I'm gonna kill 'im.
B: Now hold on a second, Bill.
A: That no-good slime-bag stole my wallet.
B: You need to be sure before you go accusing him. 

6. Circuitousness:
Some people say it straight. Some people tap dance around the point.
A: How are you?  
B: Well, I was woken up at 5 A.M. by the blasted dog next door, and then I realized I'd forgotten to buy more coffee, and . . .

7. Rhythm:
Have you ever listened to a person who sounds almost musical when they speak? Some people are naturally sensitive to the sound of words. Kline gives this example: 'I don't think I want to,' compared with, ' 'Twouldn't hardly be worthwhile.'

8.  Use of clichés:
Some people have a cliché for everything: 'Oh well, whenever you get lemons, you can make lemonade, you know?' Although it's not a good idea to flood dialogue with clichés, a character prone to their use is one who takes himself seriously and uses clichés so that others might take him seriously too. It is an attempt to appear wise without taking the trouble to think (which is not always laziness, says Kline, but human nature).

9. Word play:
Just as some people are good with the sound of words, others are quick to apply clever double meanings to words, often for dramatic effect. Shakespeare was, of course, the champion at creating characters with this trait. Unless you're writing a piece where cleverness is a central element, word play in dialogue should be used sparingly. Kline suggests that a character prone to word play often uses morbid humor to demonstrate that the world is a sick joke that shouldn't be taken seriously. Kline offers Hamlet as a fine example here.

 10. Whimsy, playfulness, and childishness:
The whimsical character is happy and imaginative and likes to have fun, usually by varying the tone, rather than words in her speech. She might indulge in pseudopoetry, or baby talk, or make deliberately silly statements to lighten the situation.

11. Exclamatory quality:
A: Dead! No way!
B: It happens to all of us, I guess.
A: I just can't believe it.

12.  DePersonalization:
Some people talk about themselves a lot, and other people don't. Two people must quickly establish how personal they want their relationship to be at any given time. Some people will tell you their whole life story in three minutes, and other people remain aloof for years. Misaligned or misunderstood boundaries relating to personalization can lead to embarrassing or irritating situations. All good stuff for storytellers.
Peter Kline suggests 78 more elements that affect how people use words. See how many you can think of (no points for the obvious like age and education).


  1. "Are you serious? Gone all this time and no mention of where you have been? Your mother and I have been worries sick over you! Don't you get it? One more thing little girl, what do you have to say for yourself? Does the cat have your tongue, Go to your room! Don't come out until you change your point of view."

    I think that is use of subordination:

    Am I right?

    Welcome back by the way.

    1. Great application of the info. Ten points to you, mate.

      I'm in that nerve-racking state of getting long stuff reviewed and shorter stuff submitted. Yes, the rejection pile is slowly growing. Yay. (Now that didn't need a whole post now, did it?)

  2. Wow what a post. this is a very thorough discussion. You are reading some heady stuff in your absence. How are you doing? We've missed you! I hope you got lots of writing done and enjoyed the time away from bloggy world. Welcome back!

    1. Cheers, Julie. I dumped this here because I don't have a better info repository (not to be confused with suppository - 'words people often confuse' is the subject of a later post). Yes, still reading and learning.

      I'm finding the time spent not posting is valuable writing time, actually, but I do enjoy dropping in on you guys. (I'm not a stalker ... really, I'm not.)

  3. Glad I happened to finally notice you posted! Great post, Erica, and quite enlightening. Sounds like an interesting book.

    I'm still getting back into the groove since Mom's passing, and agree that I want to spend more time writing than blogging. Got several projects in the wings that I want to address. It will be nice to work on those, and in the Monty revision process, I've decided he may undergo a name change (probably so), and I'm moving/changing some of the scenes to have the story go in a different direction.

    Good to see you back! And keep writing—it seems to be paying off.

    M.L. Swift, Writer

    1. Good to see you too, as always. A Monty name change, eh? I know where you're coming from. After 300pgs and a year, I did some of those. It still feels weird.

      I'm not writing or submitting too much at the moment, but just had Novel Attempt #1 reviewed, and always reading obscure how-to books.

      It sounds like the ideas are still bubbling round your brain. Yes, it's nice to work on them and even nicer to have them done.

      Sigh. We'll get there.

    2. Hey...just a note. Thanks for coming by. You know, this was a good post, Erica. Just read it again and I'm bookmarking it.

      There's always so much to do...trying to get my (private) blog about Mom underway, and eventually our story in a book. I ended up posting on my writer's blog a new article that follows along the lines of how I'll handle the other blog. Check it out and let me know what you think. I value your opinion.

      You've been busy...perhaps a little break is what you needed.

      M.L. Swift, Writer

    3. Yeah, I'll be sure to check it out. I don't always comment, but I still enjoy dropping in on the usual suspects (including you).

      This quote caught my attention recently, and it made me think of you. It's from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford:

      "He'd done all he could. But choosing to lovingly care for her was like steering a plane into a mountain as gently as possible. The crash is imminent; it's how you spend your time on the way down that counts."

      I bet there'll be a lot of pain in your story, but I'm bloody certain you'll do your mom proud.

      Hey, and thanks for visiting! Always a pleasure to hear from you.