Monday, February 19, 2007

Fresh'n ya Drink, Guv'nor?

38,000 words (in and around scratching the blackfly bites)

Ah, dialect...

"Nay, Miss, I'n got to keep count o' the flour an' corn-- I can't do wi' knowin' so many things besides my work..."
- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

"...he had a monstrous civil tongue of his own, and a jolly, easy, coaxing way with him. I liked him a deal better than my mistress. She was a hard one, if ever there was a hard one yet."

- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Two great classics, both published around the same time, both still in print 160 years later. Which one's dialogue would you rather read?

The Tiny Dynamo assures me that TMotF is full of sex and betrayal and all sorts of ripe drama, but I doubt I'll ever find out. Any three pages of those damn apostrophes makes my eyes glaze over.

It's clear that both authors wanted to catch the flavor of their working-class speakers' dialects. Collins did it with a simple elegance that was way ahead of his time.

Trying to capture the sound of spoken dialogue on the page is an old, old problem, and one that hasn't gone away. Too few concessions to the sounds we make with our mouths, and our character appear to be delivering essays. Too many of those concessions, and the readers start skipping.

Dialogue is a real sore point for me. As an American writing Kiwispeak, I often feel like I'm negotiating a minefield. I want readers to see the characters as real people, and that won't happen if I run around writing every little bit of what I hear when people talk to me.

"Good on ya, mate," will do heaps better than "G'donya, mite," ever will. I try to pay particualr attention to writers whose dialogue hums with the sound of its characters' speech. Marian Keyes is brilliant, as are James Lee Burke, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard and Frank McCourt. George Pelecanos is so good it's scary, but then, he also writes for The Wire.

I don't get it right much, but I'm trying. Getting the sound right seems to be about word choice and word order, and a sparing, sparing use of those intentional misspellings.

And then of course there's the lie at the heart of all dialogue: it's not about speech at all.

Real people um and ah their way through conversations, repeat themselves, wander off in the middle of sentences, etc. Take a glance at a court transcript sometime and see.

Dialogue can't do that. It has to move the story forward. Characters on a page only open their mouths to advance conflict or to deliver information to the reader. If the author does it right, it's like watching a magic act: we zip through the pages watching two or three or however many characters have a conversation. The story moves forward without our realizing it.

Do it badly, and it's a Scooby Doo moment. "Gee, Fred, it sure was nice of your aunt to let us stay in this spooky old house."

Pipe must be laid. But that doesn't mean it can't be laid gracefully. Getting the sound right can help draw the reader in. Getting it wrong can make an irreperable mess.


Charles Gramlich said...

Dialogue has always been difficult for me. The first few horror stories I sold were basically one character fests with nothing more than some internal monologue stuff. Eventually I began working hard to develop my dialogue skills but it's hard. Despite listening to people talk for years, capturing someone's character through their speech is a difficult assignment.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Dude, this blog is fantastic! I heard about through that odd fellow with the bike Gramlich via Sid Williams. I'm a writer in Chicago. Either of the above can vouch for my insanity. What I would like to know, sir, is can I link your blog to mine? Thx for the last ten minutes of enjoyment...