More talk about talk

Before I get to this week’s question, I want to let everyone know about two appearances coming up this summer. For members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I’ll be speaking at the national conference, which will take place in Los Angeles from July 30th to August 2nd, although I won’t get there until July 31st. Here’s the link: I intend to talk about subjects that have been raised on the blog, so thanks to all of you for making my speech easier to prepare.

To those of you who are writing for kids but aren’t members of SCBWI, I hope you’ll consider joining the biggest writers’ organization in the world and the most welcoming.  For kids who are writing for kids, sorry, you need to be at least eighteen to join.

The second appearance is for high-school-age people and above. It’s a conference called The Gathering, and it will be held from July 15th to 18th in La Plume, PA. I’ll be discussing my book Ever and also running a workshop on writing for kids. This will be my fourth year doing the workshop but my first as a featured speaker. The conference is always fascinating, good food, okay accommodations, great ideas. This year’s topic is Chaos and Creativity. Here’s the link:

In June I’ll be touring for Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, but I don’t know where I’ll be yet. I’ll post my itinerary when I get it.

On March 4, 2010, Amy Goodwin wrote… How do you write believable dialogue that is unique to each character’s personality? Every time I try it seems to come out sounding so much like me and more straightforward than I want it. They all seem to say what they think and not think either logically or in directions that suit their characters. How do you get around this and write dialogue that shows characters’ personalities and gets the story moving at the same time? I’m pretty clueless on both.

When you are working out what a particular character is like, think about how she might express her nature in speech. Figuring this  out may take you an entire book or three revisions of the book, but that’s okay,  I get to know my characters slowly. You can give her a speech mannerism in the first seven chapters and decide it doesn’t work in the eighth and remove it or exchange it for something else in revision.

If you’re developing a ruthless character, for example, you might make her interrupt often, without thinking about it, possibly without being aware of her rudeness. She wants what she wants, and she doesn’t care what anyone else has to say on the subject. A character who thinks he knows everything may also interrupt – same behavior, different reason.

In my Disney Fairies books, the character Rani, who sympathizes with everyone, tends to finish people’s sentences for them, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. When the reader sees a sentence completed by a second character, he knows Rani is the speaker.

There are lots of devices – and you can invent your own – to make a character’s speech special for that character and revealing of her inner nature. In life, everyone expresses himself uniquely. You and I have different ways of speaking. We use some expressions more often than others. I may speak in exclamations, you in questions. I may fly from topic to topic. You may stick to the point. A friend may speak so softly that you constantly have to ask her to repeat. Someone you’ve met acts as if everyone else is deaf. I haven’t nearly exhausted the possibilities; they’re legion.

And then there are the gestures that accompany speech. Somebody, perhaps a schemer, twists a length of hair around her finger when she’s lying. Manic Uncle Jack uses his hands constantly as he speaks. Secretive Alma never uses her hands. Insecure Mary moves with you while she talks so you can never avoid meeting her eyes. Bashful Stephan addresses his shoes.

In a movie or a play, this is enviably easy. The audience sees the characters do their physical bits, and the actors have tonal qualities too. We can identify such and such an actor with our eyes closed. But on the page, we have to remind the reader now and then. Someone needs to say to Stephan, “Look at me!” and then the reader will remember that he never does. Somebody has to say to Mary, “Get out of my face!”

If the speaker is a major character, you definitely want his way of speaking to go with his nature. If it’s a minor character, you can go generic, mention an accent, for instance, or nothing. Not everyone needs distinctive speech, as long as the reader knows who’s talking.

Amy, if your characters always sound like you, then you know how you sound, which is good. Try underlining the parts of dialogue in your stories that sound just like you. In  notes, list five other ways of saying the same thing. Think about how your sister might say a particular bit of speech, your brother, your best friend, your worst enemy, a teacher or former teacher.

As for dialogue contributing to plot, except for out-of-control events, most of plot grows out of character, and dialogue is an expression of character. Let’s go back to the ruthless character. Suppose she interrupts someone in authority once too often… A plot event happens. Or suppose her interruptions irritate Stephan so much that he actually yells at her. Yelling and surviving it changes him. Maybe yelling at the ruthless character gives him the courage to declare his love for Mary.

Although in general you do want your characters to sound different from one another, you don’t want to overload the reader with a circus of exotic talkers. Usually somebody has to tell it like it is, and often (but not always) that will be your main character. Your main character, if you are telling the story from his point of view, is present in every scene and is the voice the reader will hear in her mind.

Also, once you have established your characters (on the first go-round or in revision), the reader will help you. If shy Stephan is in a scene, the reader will remember (after being reminded a few times) that he’s looking at his shoes or mumbling or blushing. Part of the reader’s pleasure will be in this insider knowledge. If a teacher booms at Stephan, “Speak up, young man!” the reader will squirm right along with him.

In these prompts, think of characteristic ways of speaking, including gestures, for everybody:

• Three different characters habitually address everyone as Sweetheart, and each of them means something else by it. Write a page of dialogue for each one that shows what the speaker intends to convey.

• Two characters are accusing each other of not keeping promises. Make up the promises they’re arguing over, and write the scene three times, once for each of three different pairs of characters. In each case, what would be the plot consequences of the argument if you put it in a story? If you like, write the story.

• A character wants to do something that is certain to turn out badly. Two of his or her friends are trying to talk him or her out of it. Make up the foolhardy act. Decide ahead of time or as you write or in revision whether or not the friends succeed. Write the scene.

Have fun and save what you wrote!

  1. Wow, I've got the same problem as Amy! In the beginning of my story I felt that the characters were reacting to situations in their own seperate mannerisms, but as the plot became tenser, they each started to blend together into one character. I like the second exercise you mentioned–I might try that:).

  2. Great advice again, as usual! You've mentioned some things I hadn't ever thought I should stop to think about. The exercises sound very helpful, too (I just need to get around to doing them…yes, I still haven't.)
    Speaking of your Fairies book…I wanted to ask. Were you given a cast of characters to right about, or are they all your own? I was looking through the first chapter of your first Fairies book at the website, and it struck me that the beginning (when the fairy is born) was exactly how she is born in the Tinkerbell movie. Only your book was released earlier. Was that a general 'fact' on how a fairy is born (not the baby's laugh, but Terrence pouring the gold dust etc.), or did you make it up?

  3. thank's for the post, Mrs. Levine. I have that problem, too, not just in dialog, but in my main character's personality…it's just so Me!I mean, give her blond hair and change her name to Happiness, and there you are! (if my name was Happiness, which it's not, and if I live in a fantasy kingdom, which I don't). By the way, I really like your Fairies books, but then, I like all your books! 😀

  4. I used to hate dialogue – I had the worst dialogue ever – then in a critique someone said "No one talks this way . . ." and a lightbulb went off. So, I began "practicing" I wrote dialogue dialogue dialogue and it began to make sense, to click in -now dialogue is one of my strong points and I have fun with it.

    If you really get a bead in on your characters, who they are and how they would react to situations (and I don't do character sketches or outlines, but some people do), their dialogue and mannerisms will follow. — over here from Twitter! 🙂

  5. Ah, I have the same problem as Caroline. After a while of writing (novel writing) my characters start to become certain character molds for every story. Short story writing is kind of better because I can keep my characters themselves for the short part of the story. Do you have any advice on long time characterization, Mrs. Levine? Thanks for this article, by the way; it was a life saver! 🙂

    One thing I wanted to find out is if there will be a recording of the lecture you'll be doing for the SCBWI. I can't attend, since I'm under eighteen, but I'd like to see the transcript or get a recording. 🙂

  6. That's true. I never thought about it, but my characters DO begin to fit a mould. I'd like your thoughts on it as well! 🙂

  7. F–I made up all the fairies except Tinker Bell. Fairies being born from a baby's first laugh was invented by James M. Barrie, who wrote the original PETER PAN. Terence and the fairy dust allotment are mine.
    Happiness–I'll write a post about characters being like oneself.
    Caroline and Horsey at Heart–I'll try for a post on characters losing their individuality. And I'll find out about a recording of my speech. I suspect not, but I'll see.

  8. Dear Ms. Levine,
    I've been reading this blog for a while (and love it by the way) and i haven't really posted a comment yet. I have a question-well a problem, really, that i was hoping you could give me advice on. I write for kids, around ages 12-16 and normally my characters fall in the ages 12-16, and i am TERRIBLE at writing relationships. My characters simply have trouble bonding. When two of my characters are bonding, and getting to know each other better i can sometimes write that, but when i'm trying to write a romance, or a crush between a boy and a girl everything goes wrong. My dialogue becomes cheesy and the characters start blurting out all their hidden feelings and thoughts(which who does that in real life?). Do you have any suggestions on how to write a touching, sweet, or romantic scene without having the dialogue sound like something out of a sappy chick flick?

  9. I second Grace with that question. How do you write romance without it seeming silly or mushy or unrealistic? I really like the way you handle romance in your books, Ms. Levine – especially in ELLA ENCHANTED. So I'd like to hear some advice about it from you, too.

  10. ms. levine, thanks for writing your blog. "ella enchanted" and "the princesses of bamarre" are two of my favorite stories that i recall fondly from when i was younger. i am happy and excited to read some of your entries and decided to finally comment.

    i like this entry. i never really thought about ways the character spoke before. i was more concerned about what they said and their motivations. i will think more deeply on this. i can see how this difference can really make a story come to life more and make the characters themselves appear more real.

    i have a question about writing stories.

    my way of writing is that i wait until i have something important i must say, even though at that moment i don't know what it is that i want to write. I just have that feeling and then i write a few scenes but after that, i don't finish the story. i've lost interest and wait till inspiration strikes and i begin an entirely different idea with different characters. i have so many unfinished stories. i don't know what i should do. i think part of it is because i don't really have that plot yet, plot as in the overall goal that the character wants to achieve. i'm not really good at planning at all. i usually make these grand plans all detailed but then i decide that i don't want to stick to it, and i want to move to something else.

    what do recommend, ms. levine?

  11. Hey, I'm feeling sappy so I wanted to stop by and drop a quick message to you GCL. 🙂

    Just wanted to let you know that the first book I ever read and truly enjoyed was Ella Enchanted waaaay back when I was in 6th grade. I'm a college student today with more books than can easily be counted (under my bed, in my closet and car, bookshelves and so on) and I personally believe my love of books steams from reading about Ella and her adventures. I still have that same book I read back then and I pick it up at least twice a year to re-read it. It's showing a lot of wear and tear, but it's got to be the most loved book in my collection. Thanks for writing such an amazing book and opening that door for me.


  12. Ms. Levine – I just re-read TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE yesterday. It's an amazing book! I don't understand how you managed to write the ending. It makes me want to cry. But I believe that the bittersweet ending is half of why I love it so much – it's what makes me remember.
    Just thought I'd mention that.
    And I love your having Drualt show up…after all that talk about him!

  13. Hi! I've been reading all of this for a little while (shortly after I read Fairiest -which I love, by the way- like two months ago), and I'm glad I did. I find myself learning more and more about writing, and wanting very badly to write, something that has been on my mind for about two years and something. Which brings to my problem: I'm afraid to. I have some experience in writing and, thou(sp?) at first the idea is so fresh and new and makes me excited and not wanting to stop even thinking about it, I quickly find myself loosing interest. I always make up half the story in my mind, but when it comes to putting in in paper, the story just…drags and lacks the innitial fun and "newness" that excited me in the first place. So I tend to stop befor I even reach ten chapters (ten VERY short chapters, by the way, since I have a problem with lenght too). Miss Levine, I have no idea of what I am asking, because I don't really know what my problem is. Do I think too much about it? Do I take too much time to write? Do I plan too far ahead? Or am I simply not cut out for writing?
    I really want to write what I have in my mind, because I already love the plot and the few characters I have and the whole little world I created. But, at the same time, I don't want to write it because I fear that if I do I'll forget about the story in a while, even going so far as to hate it for some time. If that were going to happen, I'd prefer to keep all of the magic in my head, but if there were any way to write AND keep myself interested all of the way to the end, I'd be really happy…
    Another problem I have is the constant use of "I"s… (I use them too much. See what I say?)

    On another note, I bought(sp?) The Two Princesses of Bamarre and Ever, and, as with Fairiest, LOVED them. And I already have Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg and Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand (by the way, do you know if it ever got translated in spanish? My friend has been looking all over for it but…) and I [well, in this case, we] loved them also (especially Rani…I cry a lot, too!! 😀 ). The other books I didn't find…
    And, well, I just really love your style of writing. Can't wait 'till Fairies and the Quest for Never Land comes out!!

  14. Dear amazing wonderful author,

    I know that you must be a very busy person, and I know that either you get requests like this all the time, or that I'm a very silly girl and you may think me very odd for asking…So, instead of talking about how it's probably impossible, and how I"m a little embarrassed to ask, and how I completely understand if it isn't possible, I'll just go ahead and ask my question 🙂
    You see, I'm a high school student aspiring to be an author, and for a long time I've just wished I knew an author with years of experience who could read things I write and tell me how I can improve…I guess sort of a writing mentor. And I feel silly asking because, I'm just another random person reading your books and reading your blog, and so know that I won't be offended and that I completely understand that there's a million reasons it would be impossible for me to keep in touch with you and get your advice on my stories…So, since I know it's probably impossible, I shall content myself with the AMAZING kindness that you do by posting advice on your blog like this, which I just think is truly wonderful, thanks for giving your time reading this!

    ~Rose W

    P.S. I just finished reading Ella Enchanted, I'd read it long ago, and just read it again in a couple of days, and every time I've read it I just love it more then the time I read it before 🙂 I could barely put it down, and I loved every word of it.

  15. Natalie–Please don't worry about writing "I" too much! I have a post coming up about not finishing stories, but I think you may be asking something else, about the pleasure and un-pleasure of writing, and I'd like to write a post about that, so I'm putting your comment on my list.
    Rose–I'm sorry! I can't critique your work. I don't have time. I critique the writing of only the kids in my summer writing workshop in Brewster, New York. But I hope you do continue reading the blog.

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