Sep 15

Tips for Writing Dialogue

Writing dialogue presents a terrific challenge in that no two conversations are alike, even if the words are the same, and no two people are alike, and the words used are only half of it. Crafting good dialogue is part of the art of characterization. Eavesdrop on or watch any conversation you can. You will notice:

a. speech patterns, regional accents, vocabulary and slang, speech impediments, volume. Re "accents": One hint of an accent (incorrectly known as "dialect") goes a long, long way. Do not write at length using misspellings ("Ah cain't make head ner tail o' whatcha' all talkin' 'bout, brutha"); it's hard to read. Your reader will soon give up. Use such things as a spice, not a meal. Better: "I can't make head ner tail of what you're talking about, brother."

b. nonverbal portions of conversations: hand gestures, scratching an itch, punching fist in hand, eye-rolling, "air quotes," and so on.

c. About half the time, people don't talk back-and-forth as much as they talk "across" each other, impressionistically: Person A: "So, how's your husband these days?" Person B: "I can't believe how fast the laundry's piling up."

d. Note the proportions of time taken up by the speakers. Half and half, or does one person talk far more than the other?

e. nonverbal portions of oral communication, such as laughter, hooting, Bronx cheer, making the sound of vomiting,  yawning, "Eh?", "Huh?", whistles, and so on.

f. A huge percentage of conversation is "canned" or pre-fabricated phrases: "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" "I'm hangin' in there." Unless there is a reason to include those pre-fab greeting exchanges, don't put them in. Also frequently appearing in conversation are quotations, cliches and advice. Some people often say "It's a dog-eat-dog world," or "As my father always said," or "Garbage in, garbage out,"and so on.

g. People who are acquainted rarely address each other by name except as a strategy, often a selling strategy. Nervous writers do this to make sure the readers know who is speaking. Most of the time if dialogue is between two people we know who is speaking (the more so if their speech patterns are correctly differentiated). We do not say to a co-worker "Good morning, Susan. Say, Susan! What happened after I left last night?" "Marsha, you are just the person I wanted to talk to. You won't believe it, Marsha!" "Susan! Wait! There's a dead mouse beneath my desk! Susan, call maintenance!" "Oh my God, Marsha, I will call right now!"

h. People have pet words and phrases. Some always say "Okey-dokey." Some employ a word or phrase over and over, such as "bizarre," or "twee" or "inappropriate behavior."

Use dialogue only when it's important to do precisely that. Perfunctory or tangential exchanges can be deleted or rendered as indirect dialogue. "She told him she'd waited for the tow truck for an hour."

Okay, now you are educated!

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Mar 05

Using "Dialect" in Poetry and Prose

Maybe you remember Chico Marx, playing a "stage Italian," repeating, "Gets your tuttsi-fruittsi ice-cream," or that cringe-worthy moment in Dirty Harry (1971) when the black character is forced to say, "I gots to know," or when you want to mock a "mick," saying "Sure and begorra, me sainted mother raised me on the Em'rald Isle," and so on.

In writing workshop this is often called "dialect," although technically the English language has only one dialect -- "Pidgin" English, now rare, spoken in the South Seas -- so what you really mean is "accent." But call it what ye will, matey, arrgh, a little goes a long way. Your model for doing it correct-like is Mark Twain. Mid-19th-century American "Southwestern humorists," Twain's forerunners, wrote comic novels about backwoods characters, their texts all misspelled to convey the sound of their speech. From the author George Washington Harris:

Hit am an orful thing, George, tu be a nat'ral born durn'd fool. Yu'se never 'sperienced hit pussonally, hev yu? Hits made pow'fully agin our famerly, an all owin tu dad. I orter bust my head open agin a bluff ove rocks, an' jis' wud du hit, ef I warnt a cussed coward.

It's fun to write, but the irregular spelling makes these texts viciously hard to read. Twain's genius was to let his characters use vernacular speech, but tone the author's artifice way down:

He kept me with him all the time, and I never got a chance to run off. We lived in that old cabin, and he always locked the door and put the key under his head nights. He had a gun which he had stole, I reckon, and we fished and hunted, and that was what we lived on. Every little while he locked me in and went down to the store, three miles, to the ferry, and traded fish and game for whisky, and fetched it home and got drunk and had a good time, and licked me.

These days we worry about being accused of stereotyping. So if your speaker or character has an accent and you absolutely must use it (knowing that it conveys the character's social class and locale), let the character use one or at most two instances of it. Your readers will "get it," keep it in their heads, and won't have to decipher misspellings. Example: "He wrote me from overseas. I have a box of his letters. I saved ever one." That character never again uses her "accent" throughout the whole novel. You can really trust your reader with this. Twain proved it.