Talking Points: Dialogue
By Scott Nicholson

Sometimes you just have to talk it out, even when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

That’s why narrative fiction so heavily relies on dialogue. It creates conflict, gives information to the reader, moves the plot, develops the characters, and builds a sense of place. In short, it does everything, all the time, just like every element of your work should, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Speech denotes class, racial, cultural, educational, and geographic differences. Make sure each character speaks consistently. In real life, our grammar can change depending on the company we’re keeping, but in fiction you have to keep it simple for the reader. The character who says “ain’t” on page three shouldn’t be saying “most certainly is not” by page 300, unless that character has gone to Harvard during the middle chapters.

Beware of dialect. When conveying dialect, a little is usually plenty. Otherwise, it becomes parody and you lose the reader. For example, your Dodge City sheriff shouldn’t say, “I’m amblin’ over yonder to wet muh whistle.” Your Southern character shouldn’t lose all the g’s in her action verbs: enough “fussin’ and feudin’” and your reader’s eyesight will blur. Use colloquialisms in moderation, and let your grammar do most of the work instead of relying on tics, tricks, and dropped letters. “We don’t have no pumpkins,” or “We ain’t got no pumpkins” is fine, but make sure all the characters don’t talk alike. And you might need to only drop the effect once or twice to plant the idea in the reader’s mind.

In my novel The Manor, I have a minor character who is a Southern belle. She is educated, and therefore I simply said she was from the South and didn’t attempt to drench her with slang, moonshine, and magnolias. In fact, the only direct reference to her accent is when she is mocked by her lover: “Why don’t ya’ll get yosef gone with the wind?” She never actually says “ya’ll” herself. I know Southern speech patterns fairly well, and much of the effect is oral rather than literal. It’s not just Southerners who drop the g in –ing words, and they’re not doing it because they’re dumb, shiftless, and lazy. In fact, much of the Appalachian speech often seen as backwoods and backward (“I’m afixin’ to feed the chickens”) is the remnant of very formal Celtic speech that crossed the Atlantic several hundred years ago.

In the same novel, I have a character who has adopted a fake British accent because he wants to appear classy. He’s atrocious and almost a parody. He says things like, “Bloody hell,” and “Righty right,” and a lot of the little phrases you hear in movies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “The Full Monty.” It works because that’s where he “learned” his accent. If I had used a real British character, I would have had to work much harder, because most of my exposure to British speech is through movies and the occasional book, which can’t be fully trusted to convey authentic speech.

I am not a huge Lovecraft fan, and I think a lot of it has to do with his attempts to tag rural New England dialect. “Ye can have ye’re money back. I don’t want truck with any kin o’ Septimus Bishop. It’s jest aoutside my door. Snufflin’ araoun.’” Lovecraft’s educated characters display few distinctive speech patterns. It’s lazy, it’s classist, it’s just plain bad writing, Lovecraft’s unique ideas aside.

For the opposite reason, I love Elmore Leonard’s work. Somehow even his nasty characters seem to have a dignity about them. This is from the mouth of a black houseman: “Mmmm, that musta impressed him. Yeah, Jacktown have riots and everything up there. What the man likes is to rub against danger without getting any on him. Make him feel like a macho man. You know what I’m saying?” To me, this reflects a streetwise voice but one that is not generic. The line about rubbing against danger makes it smart and Leonard doesn’t have to diminish his black character with, “You sho’ got that right, homey.”

It’s not only spoken dialogue that can create pitfalls. Internal dialogue, and even the point-of-view voice, must ring true. There’s a great line by mystery writer Margaret Maron: “I is not me.” Your first-person fictional character doesn’t have to speak the way you do. If you are writing your autobiography, then your voice will emerge, but even then your “writing voice” will be different from your speaking voice. For example, a large number of people add the “th” sound to the end of “height” when they say it, which is plain stupid, but it would be even stupider if you spelled it “heighth” in your dialogue.

Most modern novels feature third-person limited viewpoints, meaning the reader gets into the character’s head and views the world through his or her eyes. This allows you to make the most of internal dialogue. I don’t know about you, but I talk to myself a lot inside my own head. That voice is different than what I would be saying if I were actually using my tongue. And if you let your characters talk to you, chances are good they will emerge with their own individual voices and rhythms.

You can read pieces of your dialogue aloud to make sure they work for the ear, but remember that written dialogue functions differently than actual speech. It doesn’t have to be real, because real speech is filled with ums, ers, and utter banalities. Don’t let a character ask about the weather unless you’re writing a natural-disaster thriller. Even if you’re writing non-fiction and using actual quotes, you’ll still have to decide which sentences are of interest and value. Most of all, make sure there’s a reason your characters are saying what they are saying, and pay attention to how they are saying it. There’s enough hot air and blabber in the world already.

(Copyright 2005. Contact Scott for reprint permission)


Scott Nicholson is the author of THEY HUNGER, THE FARM,THANK YOU FOR THE FLOWERS, and four other novels. He’s a professional freelance editor, an organic gardener, a semi-professional liar, and a goat breeder. His website serves up a blog and more writing advice.

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