The following article was previously published in Volume 11 #3, Fall issue (2000) of Once Upon a Time… a Magazine For Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Enough time has passed that the rights have reverted back to me, so I believe it’s safe to share the article with you.
Color your way to consistent dialogue. Dialogue has to sound like real people talking, or it fails. Every character must have his or her own voice, and that voice must remain consistent. Once you’ve read your manuscript aloud, and you’re sure the characters are unique and the dialogue flows naturally, take one more step.
Get some colored highlighters, a different color for each character. Go through your manuscript highlighting all of Character A’s dialogue in pink. Highlight all of character B’s dialogue in yellow. Continue through the manuscript until each character’s dialogue is a different color than that of the others.
Next, read-only the pink sections of dialogue, keeping everything in between. Read as if practicing lines in a play. Does the voice in the first pink sections sound like it’s from the same person as the voice in the last pink sections?
If not, go backward through your story. Stop when you get to a pink section that sounds the same as the first pink section. Revise all of the ladder stretches of dialogue until they blend with the voice in the earlier parts. Do the same for the other colors. This method of examining dialogue for consistency is especially helpful with novels.
Example: Character Chad might use the word “jerk” three or four times when referring to someone he isn’t crazy about. Tanya generally uses the word “nerd,” but on page 76 of the manuscript, Tanya comes up with “jerk,” and the reader accidentally assumes it’s Chad speaking.
You might have a character who always says “’Sides, …” Unless the character took a quick course in proper English, he or she isn’t going to later say “Besides” in Chapter 8.
Consider a character’s tone and vocabulary.
Example: “You know me, no ruffles or lace. But for my daughter? I was going to do her all up with more ruffles than Bo Peep.”
The same character is not likely to say “While pining for a partner who shares my deepest emotions, I stumbled upon the perfect companion, one not far from the fictional soul mate I’ve created through the privacy of my journal.”
If there are 75 pages of text between one character’s two contrasting voices, a writer may not recognize the error during a reading. However, if the two bits of dialogue are highlighted in the same color, and read back-to-back, the writer will immediately recognize the inconsistency in voice. Just as you can see the colors sneaking outside the lines in a coloring book illustration, the voice slipping outside of the character’s familiar tone will draw you right to it–if you’d done your coloring right.