Real-life conversation? It’s no excuse for confusing, irritating, distracting or boring our reader! In this guest post, ace copy editor Jodie Renner gives us three great tips for writing realistic dialogue that works - and keeps our reader happily in our story.
First off, you don’t want to frustrate or annoy us by trying to reproduce regional dialects exactly as they sound. Also, I’d be cautious about using the very latest slang expressions. They could end up dating your story within a year or two. That would not be groovy! (Pun intended.)
In-your-face profanities can lose you readers. And finally, please, leave out all the boring yadda-yadda blah-blah filler stuff!
Don’t mangle characters’ speech
So you’ve done your research? You know precisely how a character – regional, foreign or from an historical period - should sound? Don’t make the mistake of trying to reproduce those speech patterns phonetically.
As Jack Bickham says, “There was a time, not so long ago, when fiction writers strove for authenticity in some of their stories by attempting to imitate regional and ethnic dialects and pronunciations by purposely misspelling words in their dialogue. Today such practices have fallen into disfavor.”
Why? Because it’s distracting and irritating.
Not only that, it runs the risk of obscuring your intended meaning. It will throw your reader out of your story – the exact opposite of what you’re going for. Also, you could easily end up offending people from that region if you depict their everyday speech as a laughable sub-language.
Here’s an example, from an older story about slaves and the Civil War. The passage was narrated by a slave:
“So dey jump on dey horses and gallop ‘way. An’ we ain’t see’d dem since. Dey friends say dey be kilt in one o’ de firs’ battles o’ de war. Dat be good lesson fo’ we, shure ‘nuf! Black folk ain’t gonna go off ta fight in a war. Life be tuff enuf here wid’ Massa an’ his whip, widout uder buckra be shootin’ at de menfolk an’ killin’ ‘em dead.”And it went on like that for pages! Ouch!
So these days, editors, agents - and discerning readers – frown on phonetic spelling, misspellings or the overuse of apostrophes to indicate missing letters, or any other deviations from standard English speech. They may get your story, otherwise compelling, rejected.
How do you get your regional flavor across to your readers? Use an occasional elision (a dropped sound, indicated by an apostrophe) and plenty of regular contractions, with the odd regional word or expression thrown in. And that’s it.
Don’t try to keep up with the latest slang expressions
Many new authors try to appeal to their audience by using the latest slang expressions, especially in YA fiction. This is usually a mistake.
The language is changing so fast, especially fad expressions, that what’s trendy or “in” today may be already dated by the time your short story or novel comes out. The moral? Be careful with using cutting-edge street talk or just-coined slang expressions. Stick to slang expressions that have been around for at least a few years.
Don’t overdo the profanities
Another mistake made by newbie writers is to replicate every F-word. It leaves readers wincing. Profanities and obscenities can often slide by in real life, depending on the situation, but they jump out at us on the printed page. So use them judiciously, to convey the general flavor. Don’t put them in every line.
Save the worst of them for those story situations where a strong curse word is really needed to convey the emotion.
Also, consider your genre. Readers of cozy mysteries, for example, are mostly women aged 60 and up, so best to use less graphic language in those stories. The odd “Damn!” or “Crap!” or "friggin/frickin'" will usually suffice.
Don’t reproduce actual conversations verbatim
‘Actual conversations’? I mean all the uhs and ums and ers and you knows and How are you? I’m fine, and you?
In this basket I’ll put chitchat about the weather and other empty social niceties that lead up to (or follow) the real meat of the conversation. It puts your readers to sleep. And they won’t pick up your book again when they wake up.
Writing gurus tell us, “Dialogue is war!” You need tension on every page. So if your dialogue doesn’t drive the story forward, add conflict or tension, or contribute to character development, take it out.
In summary: oddball spelling, attempts at reproducing regional dialects phonetically, and heavy use of profanities all risk offending someone, whether it’s a member of a minority or just someone who doesn’t like swearing. The latest slang expressions may soon appear outdated and ridiculous. And empty blah blah is so boring, isn’t it?
So be wary of reproducing characters’ dialogue exactly as it sounds in real life—it could backfire on you!
What do you think? As a reader, how do you feel about the attempted reproduction of regional dialects in fiction - or about stories peppered with obscenities? As a writer, how do you make your characters sound ‘authentic’ without courting offence? Please leave a comment and share your views!
Reference: Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Besides publishing her popular craft-of-writing books under the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and author of numerous blog posts on writing captivating fiction.
Find Jodie at her author site www.JodieRenner.com, on Facebook and Twitter.
Posted by Jodie Renner. Posted In : Guest Posts