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That's right, folks! Sit up straight and get out your notebooks, 'cause it's time for the second of my possibly many workshop/rant/advice/things. Today's subject will be speech and speaking -- specifically, speeches and speaking done by your characters. I'll go over how to make it, how to intertwine it with your characterization, and how to avoid abusing it. Just as last time, I will begin with my own personal recommendations and conclude with an open writing challenge.


I'll be using the words "speech" and "voice" quite a few times over the course of this post. These are both being used to describe a character's manner of verbal communication. "Dialogue" refers to shared communication between two or more characters, just as "monologue" refers to a person speaking by his or herself.

Speech and Characterization

You might recall from my first entry on characterization that I very briefly mentioned finding some aspect of your character's voice that was distinctive. A good character has something about their manner of speaking or word choice or what have you that sets them apart from anyone they might be speaking to.

But the connection between voice and character goes further than that. Who an individual is can inform how they speak to others. A character who goes to college to study sociology will likely not sound the same as the high school-educated barista who serves him coffee at the campus Starbucks.

How you want someone to sound when they speak is something you should consider while making the character, at least for a little bit. If you make a super-strict rule-stickler and then make them speak like someone fresh off the Californian waves, your audience might be a bit baffled. (Not to say such a character wouldn't be interesting; you'd just need to throw out a lot of explanation for why they're like that).

Dialects and Foreign Languages

Related to characterization in speech is the concept of dialects (regional and social elements in a character's voice). Using dialects in one's writing can be very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's a convenient way to indicate elements of someone's background without having to spell it out. Someone talks about going up to Haavahd to see their brothah, you might be able to work out that they're from an upper-class Boston family (or doing a terrible JFK impression; sorry to anyone from Boston).

The risk is taking it too far, to the point of unreadability. It's okay to throw a few phonetically-spelled elements of dialect into someone's speech, but not for every word. You don't want to confuse the audience... unless of course that's your intention and you're making a joke out of someone having an ultra-thick Bayou or West Country accent.

On a similar note are elements of foreign languages. Used sparingly, they add a bit of color to characters (see Firefly). Used too much or without context (when and with who is this character using a foreign language?) and your audience is once again left in the dark. You should ideally know at least a bit of the language you're using, too. Having someone who speaks the language help you is also acceptable. Looking up common phrases can be a bit hit or miss. Online translation services should be avoided, unless you're okay with people who know the language asking you why you inserted such a butchered phrase.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Rules

Speech doesn't necessarily have to follow the same grammatical rules as most other written text. The vast majority of people in the world don't speak according to the proper rules of whatever language they follow. They speak in run-ons or fragments. They begin sentences with "and" or "but." They use words or phrases like "ain't" or "the big stabby thingy." The rules someone does or doesn't follow when they speak can tell the audience a great deal about who they are.

Actually, We DO Need Some Rules

Just because your characters can ignore the rules of proper grammar doesn't mean that the author (that is to say, you) can. There are some things you can't ignore:

When you follow up speech with a descriptor (he said, she said, etc.), the speech must end with a comma and not a period. Ex.: "...and that's how I got that particular scar," he remarked.

One cannot "smile" or "frown" spoken words. One can "say with a smile" or "comment with a frown." Ex.: "I'm good," she smiled. VERSUS "I'm good," she replied with a smile.

Different people speaking get their own paragraphs. No exceptions.

The Challenge!

Write a short story -- just a few paragraphs, really -- that is mostly someone speaking. Let's say at least seventy to eighty percent speech. It can be a dialogue or a monologue. I leave that up to you.

Remember to read and critique the responses left by others, as well as to enjoy yourself. Have fun and good writing to you all!