The Depths of Dialogue

“Class, the week before last we were discussing dialogue concerns.” She sniffed, and nudged her glasses back up her nose. “Your homework was to discover some dialogue concerns of your own. Raise your hand if you found at least one.”

A smattering of hands are raised, here and there. More than she expected, really. She walks over to the white board. “All right, then, what did you ascertain?”

*

Well, what did we ascertain?

Another key point to watch out for is what we’ll call—for lack of a better term—over-cussing. Let’s say a regular conversation with a college-age male might go like this:

“I fuckin’ tell ya, man, this is fuckin’ bullshit. I can’t even fuckin’ believe Mary would steal the key to my fuckin’ storage unit and set fire to all my goddamn shit. All my goddamn shit!”

Now, if you say it aloud, it sounds fairly normal, if angry. But in dialogue form, it’s… terrifying. And knocks the reader out of any story you are trying to create. Cuss words in speech—especially with young people in this day and age—are little more than emphatic interjections. But cuss words in writing pack a much, much larger punch. “I tell ya, man, this is bullshit. I can’t fuckin’ believe Mary would steal the key to my storage unit and set fire to all my goddamn stuff” is hardcore enough, in written form.

We think it may be because, historically, cuss words were palabra non grata in written speech, period. So while “fucking” may sound like “gosh-darned” to the trained ear, “fucking” still looks like “fucking” to the eye, because our eyes have not yet been trained to read past these words. Maybe in a hundred years this will be different, but right now, it’s important to choose your cuss words carefully, and make sure to only use them when you really need them.

After all, everyone remembers the one single cuss word in Harry Potter, when Molly Weasley shouts, “You bitch!” Quite the punch that packed.

The above sentence also leads us into another point, which is: stick with standard spelling if at all possible. Just because a person sounds like they’re saying, “Ay assed fur a dubble rume weeth ay beth,” doesn’t mean you should actually write it that way. When the reader has to stop and peer closely at each syllable, it breaks the flow of the story. “I assed for a double room weeth a bath” makes it very clear that there is an accent involved, but is much easier to comprehend in a single read. Especially as “Ay” and “I” are essentially the same sound, as are “dubble” and “double”, and “rume” and “room”. (And yes, that was from an actual published book.)

You see this in Scottish-based novels, especially. “Och aye, me lassie, an’ I shall gev ye a wallopin’ if’n ye donna be doin’ as I ask ye.”

Entirely unnecessary—especially if it comes from a protagonist, who has a large portion of dialogue, instead of a throwaway Nanny character with three lines.

Pirates, as well: “I be feelin’ that thar be somethin’ between us, lubber.”

The whole point of a story—the essential function—is that it allows a reader to escape into a world you’ve created. If the reader keeps being drawn back to the physical page time and again, sounding out syllable after syllable because your malformed words don’t make sense to their eyeballs… somethin’ be wrong, matey.

 

What other dialogue issues have you noticed in the books you read? Or, conversely, are there any awesome dialogue techniques you’ve noticed and appreciated?

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