Whether we’ve seen the Declaration of Independence or not, we recognize this bold and stylish signature that identifies the president of the Second Continental Congress.
Signatures are important because they identify people. The bank honors our checks because they recognize our signature. Contracts depend on signatures because those distinguish the parties involved in the contract.
A written signature is a unique visual that identifies a specific person. I call the unique manner of speech that identifies a specific person that person’s Dialog Signature.
I suggest that you make up a dialog signature for each of your major characters before you even start writing the novel. Why? So that each character will have a distinct manner of speaking which the reader can recognize.
What makes up a dialog signature? Many things. Let’s look at a few.
Vocabulary or word choice. Often our vocabulary reflects who we grew up. Did this character come from a rural area or a big city? Were his parents both college professors? Did he live over a bar as a teen? Was he from New York, Boston, New Orleans or Las Vegas and it shows in his speech.
Does your character have favorite words that show up more frequently than normal? Or perhaps marker words, common words overused by this person. How are favorite words and marker words different. A character might have a favorite word like “paradigm” and use it in most conversations. But a marker word would be a more common word (generally one which adds nothing), such as “like” or “just” and that word might show up in almost every sentence.
What is her sentence structure? Does she always speak in complete sentences, or perhaps compound sentences. Or maybe she doesn’t use complete sentences.
Volume? Terse or verbose? Here, we’re not talking about how loud, but how many words. Two people can deliver the same information, but one uses the minimal number of words possible while the other may use five times as many words.
Does she have a particular cadence in her dialog?
Is her speech playful, always serious, cautious, businesslike, offhand, snarky?
Does he have a regional dialect, or perhaps a foreign accent?
What is her eye contact mode? Does she look you in the eye, or avoid eye contact? Or does this depend on whether she is telling the truth or not?
Any particular body language? Yes, we are talking about dialog, but some studies show the words account for less than half of the information a person receives during dialog. Facial expression is an obvious and important element, but so is the position of the arms, posture, focus of the eyes, etc.. In this short discussion, we can’t cover body language adequately – books are written on it. But, keep it in mind when developing a character’s dialog signature.
Here’s an example of a dialog signature for a character.
Ron’s Dialog Signature
Flow: very deliberate person – thinks before responding
Mannerism: frequently begins with “Mmmmm.”
Cadence: slow – never rushes
Style: usually businesslike or polite, never snarky
Sentence structure: usually speaks in complete sentences
Vocabulary: normal, with occasional words outside normal, but not
esoteric. Examples: paradigm, caveat
Regional dialect or accent: none
Body Language: always maintains eye contact. If responding to a
question, will likely nod several times before answering
Voice: soft spoken, almost never raises his voice
Favorite word: precisely
Favorite phrase: In my opinion
Volume: doesn’t waste many words
Keep in mind, that to be part of the character’s Dialog Signature, these must happen often, not just in a single instance.
If you keep this in front of you when writing dialog, Ron will be consistent and easily distinguished. Readers will come to know his speech patterns. If you follow this procedure for all major characters, readers will begin to recognize the speakers and actually hear their voices.
And you will be a master at writing dialog.
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 has had four non-fiction books published. He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense/thriller. His twelfth book released in May, 2018. In addition, he speaks at conferences and gives workshops on various writing topics such as character development, dialog, audiobooks, plotting, and the mystery/suspense/thriller genre.