Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Vernacular in Dialogue

Question: I write about Southern characters, who talk the way people do talk in the South. But the members of my writers' group complain about "spelling errors" and "grammar mistakes" in dialogue, when I had put them there deliberately. They also think my story "moves too slow." Isn't it correct to be incorrect, if the characters "don't talk so good?" And shouldn't they sound like people really sound.

Answer: Mark Twain got in trouble for doing the same thing. For many years his books were banned from school libraries because of all the "poor grammar issues" that he put in quite deliberately, as he explained at length in the preface.

Having said that you are right, grammar mistakes are allowed when writing in dialect speech, let me add that a little of this goes a long way.

This is a lesson I learned – reluctantly I’ll admit – in a workshop with Diana Gabaldon. She wrote a book about a group of 17th century Scots, and English Outlander. No dialect is a thick as that of Scotland. Diana said she listened to old Scots ballads sung in English and in Gaelic to absorb the rhythm of the speech. There’s a great deal of difference between the speech of the Scots and the Englishwoman, and among the Scots, depending upon their station in life and educational level. But nobody said, “Hoot mon!” She changed didn’t to didna, and wouldn’t to wouldna, and added some dated terms like “foxed” for drunk. But most of it was in the rhythm of the language. Because of the sentence construction, English sounded different when the Scots spoke it, but their meaning was never obscured.

Avoid anachronisms and use very little slang, unless it’s some you make up yourself. I read a story set in Biblical times where characters said things like “okay” and "right on!" Okay is a slang term that didn’t come into use until the 19th century and "right on" had a brief popularity in the 70s. Neither would have been said in Biblical times. Any time you are uncertain when a term came into use, you can check it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Slang gets dated and slang terms may change in meaning. Avoid cliches, too. In a 1940 edition of Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, it was fine to describe her father as a “gay man about town,” even though it was a cliche. At that time it meant he was lighthearted and very social. You wouldn’t use that term today, because the word “gay” has taken on a whole different meaning.

Good dialogue should sound natural, but not too much like people really talk. Never put small talk into dialogue, it just slows everything down. The important thing in dialogue is to leave out stuff that is unimportant and get right to the point.

Here is an example of BAD dialogue the way it might go in real life:

“Hi, Harry. How are you? And how’s your mother?” Mary said, to her neighbor.
“Hi, Mary. Good to see you this morning. She’s better thanks.”
“Oh, good. I’m glad to hear it.” Mary admired the way Harry cared for his aged mother. He was so good to her. Mary wondered if Harry had heard the news about John. “Say, did you hear about John?”
“No. Did something happen to him?”
“He’s dead.”
“John Smith, who lives across the street? You’re kidding. Right?”
“No, I’m not kidding. John’s dead.”
“Really? What happened?” Harry asked.
“The postman smelled exhaust coming from the garage. He called the cops from my house. It took them 20 minutes before they showed up! Then they had to call a locksmith to get in his house, ” Mary said.
“Wow. That’s interesting. Which locksmith did they call?” Harry asked, again.
“Brady’s – the one over on Biscayne. Anyway, the car was still running and John was dead when they found him. But they called for an ambulance anyway. It took them another twenty minutes to get here. Then they took him to the hospital.”
“Hospital? I thought you said he was dead,” Harry said.
“He is dead. But they had to go to the hospital, it’s the law,” Mary said. “The paramedics said he was dead all right, but they took him in the ambulance anyway.”
“Gosh. I can’t believe John’s dead. What was it? Suicide?” Harry asked.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you. He’s been so depressed, ever since Evelyn left him,” Mary said. “But the cops found a bruise on his head. So they weren’t really sure if he killed himself or if it was murder. You know, John had a lot of enemies.”
“Yes, he did. That Evelyn of his, for one. Not to mention that new fellow she's been seeing.”

Notice all the “saids?” Here's a neat little technique you can use. If you show a character in action within the same paragraph as their speech, the reader will assume the character who moved was also the one who spoke. This little trick can get rid of a lot of repetitive language (the saids), and it forces you to insert an image. You only have to be careful to make certain that the person who speaks and the person who moves are the same person. If you want to show another character's reaction to the speech, change paragraphs, even if they don't say anything. Treat the movement just as if it were a dialogue reply.

In good dialogue, you only put in the important stuff:

“Harry, did you hear? John Smith’s dead.” Mary Sullivan greeted Harry Donohue, her across-the-street neighbor. "They found him locked in the garage with the car still running.

“Suicide?” Harry’s face looked stunned.

Mary shook her head. “They’re not certain. Could be murder.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me – that ex-wife of his always said she’d kill him one day.”

“You think it was her?”

“He had a lot of enemies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it.” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Her, or her new boyfriend.”

Do you see how 25 lines of dialogue were condensed to just a few? And yet all the important information was relayed to the reader.

1 comment:

  1. You're so right. A little readin' writin' 'rithmatic and y'all goes a long long way.
    I TRY to indicate an idea of the way a character speaks without overkill. A couple of people I can trust say I do very well with slang and "black" dialog, but if I do, it's because I try very hard not to overdo it.
    I don't like period movies where the characters talk in today's vernacular, but at the same time I would bet that people in 1850 didn't really talk the way they talk in True Grit and other films of this type,i.e. the way people in those days wrote. Even letters from people with very limited education were very formal, but I don't believe those people really talked that way when they walked into the Silver Dollar of McMann's General Store. Okay, I better stop now and get some more coffee.