#5 Everyone Sounds AlikeI can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read in my years of judging literary contests where the characters all talked in the same lingo. If this is one of your failings as a writer, you have lots of company.
Everyone-sounds-alike dialogue often points to a writer sleeping at the wheel, in a creative sense. It’s possible to plot an original novel but still write the manuscript by rote. This can be amazingly easy to do, in fact. Using your imagination more fully requires an investment of time, a commodity in short supply with the current stress on productivity, but don’t skip this step.
Some writers refuse to plot, saying it destroys the creative process. That could be true for them, or they might never have learned to use a plot outline as a springboard into the imagination. I personally find following a plot liberating. But we’re all different. Do what works best to free your creativity.
Defining your characters is the key to breaking loose of everyone-sounds-alike syndrome. If you’re stuck, try writing a scene from each participating character’s viewpoint. You’ll uncover motives and perspectives that might have otherwise escaped you.
Ways to Vary Dialogue
A personal vocabulary, or lexicon, expresses a character’s background, education level, values, and perspectives. A carnival barker from Jersey chooses different words than an upscale lawyer from Manhattan, for example.
The slang your characters use efficiently tags them for readers, but be aware that slang has pitfalls. It’s okay for it to date a character if that’s what you intend, but you probably don’t want it dating your book.
Make sure your characters’ word choices are true to them.
If you’ve ever listened to the sound of someone talking without taking in their actual words, you were probably honing in on that person’s speech pattern. I experienced this as a child when listening to my father read to me at night, mesmerized by the resting places between his speech where pauses for breath inserted themselves and the rising of his tone at the end of a question.
The places your characters were born or lived imprinted on them, giving them certain patterns, or rhythms of speech. Even when all your characters hail from the same location, their speech patterns vary by family and by individual.
The way a character pronounces words says a lot about his or her geographical background and education level. I’ll use myself to illustrate this.
I read adult books and consumed the dictionary and encyclopedias with abandon at an early age. This caused me to pick up words, sometimes without ever having heard them pronounced. And now, even though I know a lot of words, I don’t always pronounce them correctly. This is a peculiarity of my speech, and one that could be used in moderation in fiction to endear a character to readers or as a way of introducing a little humor. On the other hand, a character who deliberately mispronounces words or names after being told the correct pronunciation doesn’t earn brownie points with readers.
Vocabulary, speech patterns, and pronunciation combine to create distinctive accents. Giving a character an accent, where it makes sense, helps you create varied dialogue. Certain cautions apply, though. For advice on handling accents, read Writing Accents (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes).
Some Final Thoughts
Avoiding everyone-sounds-alike dialogue is the simple but rewarding process of delving into your story and discovering the people who inhabit it. Follow with research and observation to ensure your characters remain true to themselves.
Next time we’ll cover dialogue writing mistake #6: information dumps.
Go to dialogue writing mistake #4: writing accents badly.
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