Research has shown that families who eat meals together benefit in physical, emotional and countless other ways. One of the main reasons? Families talk to one another at the supper table. They share the events of their day, both the good and the bad. They debate. They laugh. They argue. They bond. So what better place for writers to improve their dialogue writing skills than a family meal?
I’ve been keeping this idea in mind as I’ve been writing a dialogue-heavy dinner scene for my WIP. In the scene, my protagonist is joining a classmate for supper at his home for the first time. She barely knows the classmate and finds herself eating a meal with four generations of his mostly female family. To add even more discomfort to her situation, the family is trying to share this meal in the wake of a personal tragedy. This guy’s family plays a key role in my story’s conflict, climax and resolution. The scene is my reader’s introduction to them – all 10 of them all at once – and that means I have my work cut out for me in trying to give each one a unique voice.
Writing character-specific dialogue is hard enough without the added challenge of having related people at the table who hail from the same town, were taught the same values and likely have voices that sound alike. So I decided to assign a color to each character to visually attempt to differentiate them. I wrote my protagonist’s words in a purple font, the classmate’s in blue, and so forth until I had a rainbow on my pages. I squinted at first when I saw 11 colors on my computer screen, but have found the exercise to be insightful.
For starters, seeing that much color all in one place made me question whether I needed each character. Does the classmate really need five sisters? Does grandma need to live with them? Do the 3-year-old twins need to be present in this scene? After careful consideration, I decided yes, yes and yes. My protagonist is unaccustomed to such a large family when she first meets them, and this scene is a gem of an opportunity for me to show my readers her unease. More important, her growth is largely shaped by the big, close-knit family dynamic she encounters throughout the story.
With that said, all of those vibrant colors also helped me realize that certain characters had more to say at the table than others. A lot of green on the page from the classmate’s younger sister? She’s someone who is going to influence my protagonist along her journey. Not a lot of orange from the older sister? She’s not single-handedly going to affect my main character’s outcome in specific or significant ways. I could literally see which characters’ voices I should spend my time fine-tuning.
With the color coding in place and those decisions made, I’m now able to focus on how my key characters’ ages and relationships to one another will help my readers identify who is speaking in the absence of dialogue tags. After all, grandma will speak to her 9-year-old granddaughter very differently than she will to her grown daughter. That same 9-year-old is likely to shout, “Quit it,” and swat her older brother’s hand away when he tries to play with her ponytail. But she may not react the same way to her mom fussing with her hair.
As I go forward from this scene, I plan to keep color coding the dialogue to come. By doing so, I expect it will be easier to read through the completed MS to ensure that each character’s voice is consistent throughout the story. Then, when I’m done, I’ll reformat everything to a plain, dare I say boring, black font. Hopefully, each character’s voice will be colorful enough to keep my readers turning the pages.