High Intensity Writing Workshop No. 6


Despite the fact that this will be one of the shorter exercises, it’s one of the most important you can use to develop characters and their unique voices. Previously I’ve had you work on dialogue so you could avoid the “he said” tags which make dialogues choppy. By the end of this exercise you’ll understand how to construct a character’s voice so well that there will seldom be any doubt who is speaking.

Dialogue consists of a number of a variety of components:

Vocabulary: The number of words you know is a function of age and education. The longer you’ve been around, the more you study and read, the more words you know. The King James Bible has a vocabulary of somewhere around 8,000 words of English. Shakespeare’s plays, written at the same time, uses over 36,000 words—a fair number of them invented by the Bard himself. The more words you use, the longer they are and, in English, the more that come from Latin roots, the more educated, erudite and intelligent you sound.

Sentence Length: as with words, the longer the sentence, the more educated the person sounds Children tend to put together sentences with roughly as many words as their age. Their sentences may seem longer because instead of a period, they tend to punctuate them with the word “and,” but functionally they’re very short. Mood also affects sentence length. A perfectly brilliant character who is angry may answer a request with the word “fine,” for example. In this case, that single word does a lot of heavy lifting.

Jargon: professions, clubs, hobbies and other social groups all have their own words and phrases for things. The proper use of specialized language marks not only a character’s membership in those groups, but often the era when they entered the group. A Viet Nam vet might refer to a helicopter as a “chopper,” while a Gulf War or Iraq war vet will likely call the same machine a “helo.” This sort of stuff is best learned either by experience in the group you’re writing about, or a lot of research including interviews with members of that group.

Words from a foreign language which a character, as a native speaker of that language, might insert into a dialogue, should be written in Italics. For example, “Bonjour and welcome to Maison D’oughnuts.”

Regionalisms: The Dictionary of American Regional English points out that in America we have all sorts of words which are standards in various pockets of the country. In much of the south, for example, if you want a carbonated beverage, you ask for a Coke. Elsewhere it’s a soda or soft drink or tonic. To broaden things, Australian English and American English have lots of words and expressions that don’t match with the British version of the language; and both British and Australian English have their own regional variants. Just how you write what a character calls something can tag that character’s background.

Dialect: Before 1960, writers often would render some dialogue in dialect. “Take dat guy out, youse guys, and do what you gotta do.” This is a mild example, but points out three problems with dialect that have curbed its usage. First, the writer has to misspell words on purpose, and deliberately mangling the language by rendering things phonetically is tough—especially remaining consistent with it. Second, and far more important, putting dialect into the mouth of a character can be classist and racist. The above example, for example, could be construed to denigrate individuals of certain ethnic groups and criminal classes. Third, most readers don’t like wading through dialect. It is, really, a foreign language and really slows down a book.

Generally speaking, correct use of jargon, including quirky phrases or the occasional foreign word, suffices to reveal aspects of a character’s background.

Take a look at the following sentences. Read them aloud to yourself, then quickly jot a note describing who the speaker is and anything you can glean about the speaker.

1) I say, pardon me, but would you happen to have any Gray Poupon?

2) No, daddy, the yellow kind.

3) Whoa, dude, wanna leave a little mustard for the rest of us?

4) Need anything else, hun? Mustard, maybe?

5) Now, when I was your age, all we ever had on hot dogs was mustard, and that was only when my grandfather took me to the boardwalk in the summer.

6) I put my name on that mustard, now someone’s used it all up. What the hell?

7) For the sophisticated palate, a Reisling usually pairs well with picnic fare, as the crisp yet sweet flavor contrasts gently with spices like mustard.

Clearly the sentences are linked by a theme. All of them are addressing an aspect of mustard usage. Each is appropriate for different characters, and each tells us specific things about the characters. If we were to use each sentence as a basic model for how a particular character speaks, shaping whole dialogues in that voice would be easy.

The Exercise

Take any simple sentence—perhaps an advertising slogan or, as with #4 above, something a waitress said to me at lunch—and rephrase it for different characters. Try the appropriate wording for insolent teen, confused senior citizen, arrogant but not terribly bright person, extremely bright but poorly socialized person, a gentle, helpful soul, an exhausted server at a restaurant and an excited college student.

Write out each rewording for five sentences. Once you’ve done that, offer a second selection that shows how they would respond if they were furious, and a third if they were ecstatic.

You’ll end up with fifteen sentences for each character. You get bonus points if you also generate a “catch phrase” for the speaker. From the examples above, the use of “Whoa, Dude” and “What the hell” would be (weak) examples of a catch phrase.

Please feel free to share some of the more interesting results in the comments below.

©2015 Michael A. Stackpole


I’m really enjoying writing and sharing these exercises. I hope you’re finding them useful. I really want to thank everyone who has retweeted the notices, and especially those who have turned around and bought something out of my online store, like 21 Days to a Novel. The fact that these exercises caught enough of your interest for you to invest in your writing is a great incentive for me to continue.

If you’re serious about your writing, you’ll want to take a look at my book, 21 Days to a Novel. It’s a 21 day long program that will help you do all the prep work you need to be able to get from start to finish on your novel. If you’ve ever started a book or story and had it die after ten pages or ten chapters, the 21 Days to a Novel program will get you past the problems that killed your work. 21 Days to a Novel covers everything from characterization to plotting, showing you how to put together a story that truly works.

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One Response to “High Intensity Writing Workshop No. 6”

  1. This was a very useful exercise. Thanks, Michael.
    I’m wrapping up my first full length novel and there are still a couple of characters I haven’t found a distinguishing voice for. This will be a great help. Much obliged.