Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Guest author James R. Callan: The Dialog Signature

James R. Callan
After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing. He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years, and published several nonfiction books.  He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his sixth book scheduled for a Spring 2014 release.

The Dialog Signature

Most of us recognize the significance of our signature. It is, or should be, a unique representation or identification of who we are. In Mexico, where we spend time, signatures are an art form. They may not clearly show the various letters in a person’s name, but they are unique and they identify the person who has put down his mark.

Signatures count. Look at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence and one name stands out. It isn’t Th. Jefferson, although he was very important in the process. John Hancock’s signature draws the eye to it, and even today, we say, “Put your John Hancock on the dotted line.”

So, what does this have to do with writing? Am I talking about the way you autograph a book?

Ideally, each of your major characters will have a signature, a dialog signature. Your written signature identifies you. The dialog signature of your character should identify him or her. It should be as unique to the character as your signature is to you. And just as your signature tells us something about you, the dialog signature of each character should tell the reader a lot about the character.

When you make up a bio for one of the people in your book, you should include his or her dialog signature.  How do you do this? Ask yourself these questions.
What vocabulary does she use?
What is her diction?
Does she have a regional dialect?
Is English a first or second language for her?
What cadence is normal for her?
What are her marker words?
What is her normal sentence structure, or does she have one?
How verbose is she?
What mannerisms does she exhibit while speaking?
What body language does she show?
Does speaking come easily for her?
What circumstances make her nervous when speaking?

Answer these and other questions and you will have a dialog signature for the character. Keep this handy when writing dialog for this character and you will make this person consistent. The reader will recognize the speech patterns. In many instances, you may not even need an attribution when she speaks.

In my book How to Write Great Dialog (Oak Tree Press, 2014) I devote a chapter to the dialog signature, giving examples of how to use marker words, the use of sentence structure or the lack of it, and many other aspects of a dialog signature. And I give many examples to show how different characters would say, or convey, the same information.

Here is an example from my suspense book A Ton of Gold (Oak Tree Press, 2013).

“I think Eula is right. Bessie didn’t start the fire. Could you get a forensic pathologist to look at the body? Do a complete autopsy?”
Glothe cracked the knuckles of his left hand. “Do that sometimes. Pretty good guy in Tyler. Doc Haas. Course, usually Willa suggests it, calls him.”
Mark didn’t say anything.
“Maybe get Doc Simms to call Willa. Make her think it’s his idea.”
“Good. How about not letting it out that Eula is alive?”
“That’s a bigger stump.”

The sheriff Glothe doesn’t worry about complete sentences, or subjects or verbs, for that matter.  Mark, on the other hand, has a more structured speech.

There’s definitely more to dialog that copying what you hear in the post office.  Make your novel sing – and sell – with great dialog.

Website: www.jamesrcallan.com
Blog: www.jamesrcallan.com/blog
Amazon Author page: http://amzn.to/1eeykvG
Twitter: @jamesrcallan

A Ton of Gold (Oak Tree Press, 2013)
On Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions

How to Write Great Dialog (Oak Tree Press, 2014)
On Amazon in paperback


Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, James! Good tips on writing dialogue, one of the most important cues to character construction.

James Callan said...

Thanks for having me, Liane. It is an honor to be on your site. And I really believe what I've said. Dialog is so important to a novel. Using a dialog signature for your major characters will help.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great post. I always have to spend quite a lot of time at the end of a story or book going back through and doing this for my characters. In the speed of the writing it sometimes gets confused.

Marja said...

You're so spot on, James. Each character needs a signature, and it helps the reader keep track of everyone. Excellent post.
Marja McGraw

James Callan said...

Thanks for stopping by, Charles. I know what you mean. But, a dialog signature taped to your monitor will help. (Won't eliminate the need for that final check, but might make it easier.) Thank for the comment.

James Callan said...

Thanks, Marja, for the comment. Glad you stopped by.