Dialogue: handling authentic speech, archaisms, and dialect

I’ve often had the experience of picking up someone’s writing, and as I read a conversation between a couple of their characters I ended up thinking, “No real human being would ever talk like this.” And usually that meant that I had a hard time enjoying the book, if I finished it at all. For some writers, dialogue is hard to handle; in fact, many writers are strong in either narrative or dialogue, but not always in both.

The most important thing to do with dialogue is to make your characters talk like real people. That doesn’t mean you stick in every “um” or “like” that a speaker would inject into their conversation in real life, but they do need to talk the way their character would talk if you ran into them on the street. If dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you, you need to ask yourself one question with every word you put into a character’s mouth: “Would a real person be caught dead saying this?” If not, then imagine a real person saying it – imagine yourself saying it in your normal way – and write it that way.

That covers you or people who talk like you, but what about different types of characters? Say you’re writing a frontier western, and want to get across the “cowboy” feel. Or you’re penning a fantasy, and think that it will sound more authentic if people talk in more flowery or archaic language. It’s clear that you’d never run into anyone who talks like that in real life, but surely that doesn’t matter so much when you’re writing these types of novels?

In fact, it just might. If you make the speech overly “authentic” in those scenarios, you run the risk that your readers will spend far too much time wrestling to read the dialogue itself, instead of following the actual story. If “getting” the dialogue becomes the point of their reading, instead of the plot itself being the point, you’ve lost them. You want your readers to flow right along with the story and not even be conscious of the mechanism that’s drawing them along.

So does that mean your characters have to talk like twenty-first century people? How can a fantasy novel about a noble courtier sound remotely authentic that way, not to mention plausible? Do you have to abandon all attempts to make your characters sound like they really come from the place and time you’ve set them in?

Absolutely not. There’s a fine line to walk, but you can indeed create your setting and make it sound authentic, by putting in just enough “archaic” or situation-based words to suggest it to your readers. But remember that words on the page make more of an impact on the reader’s consciousness than spoken words, especially if they’re spelled differently than the reader is used to. A word with an altered spelling or pronunciation will leap off the page and take on significance. These words become things that entangle the reader, preventing them from moving quickly through the page.

A real person might use five obscenities in a sentence, but if you repeated all of them in written dialogue, they would come across much too powerfully. Two, or even better, just one would have as much impact on the reader. So pare down the archaisms or the “y’alls” or the “yo’s” and use them judiciously, every now and then when they seem natural. Sprinkle them lightly here and there, and the reader’s imagination will absorb them and visualize the context you’re trying to create. Flood the conversations with dialogue that feels too unusual to them, and their eyes will “catch” on each word and have to puzzle it out before they can move on.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Dialogue: handling authentic speech, archaisms, and dialect

  1. xxhawkeyexx

    I liked you post, since it’s true.
    Most writer focus on the narrative part of the story, so, when they write the dialogue, it sounds like a man in his thirties talking when it’s supposed to be a teen.
    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t writers who are able to give a nice description of the things happening in their story and have a nice, fluid and human dialogue in it.
    Nice post,
    http://xxhawkeyexx.wordpress.com/

  2. xxhawkeyexx

    *writers, teenager.

  3. Kevin

    I think the fight to be “authentic” or faithful to the type/planet/time you’re writing for is a plague. Establishing that a character is Southern at the time of the Civil War, for example, and then occasionally reinforcing the “Southern-ness” (magnolia blossoms; plantations; etc.) is much more effective than peppering their speech with “y’alls” and “lord a’mercies.” That kind of speech is delightful to my ear, but painful in my eye.

    It can also be terribly inauthentic if you know something (or anything, really) about linguistics. The point xxhawkeyexx made about grownups writing dialog for teens who sound like grownups is good, but even worse is grownups who try to sound “hip” by peppering their speech with slang they don’t use and don’t understand. The whole “X” thing comes into play: If you know anything about rave culture and/or drugs, you would never ever call Ecstasy “X”. It’s “E.” Calling it “X” is a sign that you’ve been misled and don’t know what you’re doing. It’s a dog whistle to people you’re trying to possibly reach that you never even bothered to learn.

    To make a generalization from that specific, it’d be much better to stick to the aphorism of writing “what you know.” That doesn’t mean to avoid topics you’ve never experienced–as Ursula K. LeGuin pointed out, she’s never been to another planet or seen the light of another sun–but to approach them from the awe and wonder of “what is this thing.” If you convey that, you don’t have to worry about stilted dialog.

  4. Kevin

    This is me leaving a blank post because I forgot to check that “follow-up” box and I’m very interested in seeing this conversation develop.

  5. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Dialogue: handling authentic speech, archaisms, and dialect « SHINY IDEAS [myshinyideas.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  6. Hawkeye, you’re right, it’s almost always obvious when a writer is just trying to cater to a certain group, but doesn’t really know anything about it. They either need to get a consultant from that group, to make sure their dialogue is even remotely authentic, or try to be general enough that they can do without it. (Nice blog, by the way!)

    Kevin, those are similar to the points made by the author and writing instructor whose writing originally changed my mind about all this. He said there’s also a danger that “authentic” speech, especially if it’s more recent, is going to change and go out of date really quickly. Then you’re stuck with an obviously out-of-date story. Whereas if you made the content of the dialogue the main thing, rather than “authentic words,” it would be almost timeless.

  7. Ishtar

    I’d hate to tell you how long it took for me to figure this out on my own – for years my stories felt stilted because I had not truly understood that people don’t speak grammatically. It wasn’t until I did a stint scripting a comic book that I really began to get a feel for it.

    One of my favorite authors is Georgette Heyer, who uses a lot of period cant, but rarely so much that you can’t figure out what her characters are trying to say. My favorite book of hers is The Unknown Ajax, where a major point is the difference between dialects of English. It’s been recently reissued, and I highly recommend it.

  8. That sounds really good, Ishtar. And that’s a good point — about people not speaking grammatically. That’s another distinction that really needs to be made: that you can write your descriptions grammatically, but the people themselves aren’t parsing their own speech to make sure it’s all grammatically correct.

    (Well, I do, but that’s just my obsession. Ha!)

  9. I have sometimes felt when reading that a writer might handle the dialogue of one gender well, but not the other. If I hear a big strong macho male speaking about the decor in whimsicle tones it hurts the credibility of the story for me. Of course I’m not saying it’s unheard of for fellows to care about decor, but in some occasions I’ve felt as a reader that the writer was imposing his or her own gender-identity onto the character, with unfortunate results.

    That’s my take on the question of weak dialogue. Great blog post and something to think about- as writers we need to allow our characters to be themselves.

    Best,
    Donna Carrick

  10. Thanks, Donna. I worry about that with my own writing too: am I portraying male characters realistically? That goes beyond language too, but it certainly starts there.

    I know some of this can be done by imagination. I think we can certainly write beyond our own experience.

  11. Nerdy Chick

    I found that I didn’t really learn how to write dialogue until I started transcribing interviews. Once I did that, I really got a sense of how people talk. I recommend reading plays, too–plays are all about dialogue, and bad dialogue really sticks out. I remember seeing a documentary about G.B. Shaw in which an actress said that she could never just ad-lib a recovery if she messed up a line–the Shaw’s dialogue was so good and so precise that she couldn’t think of another way to express what her character needed to say.

  12. Baseball Diva

    Something I have found helpful in creating dialogue is to run the lines. Speak them aloud. Speak them yourself, or even better have someone else read them out loud. Your ear will catch some things that your eye will miss.

    Dialects should be hinted at rather. A writer who relies on phonectic spellings to conveny dialect can confuse or alienate a reader. The reader gets bogged down in trying to decipher what word an awkward spelling is intended to be, particularly if the writer and reader are from different regions.

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