By Doug Owen
Everyone does it at one point or another. I do it all the time just to piss off my wife. We all try to talk with an accent or use the dialect from another country.
It’s fun, I’ll admit, to try and make yourself sound like William from Newfoundland, Billy from Ireland, James from Manchester, Ivan from Russia or Eddie from Jamaica. But how do you convey this in your manuscript?
Here are the most common pitfalls when writing dialogue—and how to avoid them. Needless to say, you will come across A Clockwork Orange every once in a while, which defies what I am about to say, but generally, you will want to follow these rules. Why, you may ask? Well, here is the answer, but it comes in a strange way.
Have you ever watched the show Swamp People? Have you found it strange that they are speaking English but there are subtitles at the bottom? It’s so you can really understand what they are saying. If we cannot understand the main character(s) in a show or novel, we will not watch or read it. Everyone wants to understand what is coming from the other’s mouth. More on this below.
Keep a lid on profanities
Have you ever watched a comedian on stage and all they do is swear every other word? After the performance, the main complaint of the audience is, “They did swear a lot.” Writing is the same way. Yes, people do swear (you’ll find that out if you watch UK Reality TV), but no one wants to read it in their novel. Okay, maybe the occasional F-bomb is okay, but not every other word. They stand out on the page, especially when a potential reader is doing the finger flip to see if they want to buy the work. Save your swearing for the time your character needs to really be intense with their words. This will show the reader you care about them and are not just out for shock value.
Sling the slang away
Every good author knows when to use a little slang. But, like profanities, you want to use this sparingly. So make sure the people in your work actually speak English (or whatever language you are writing in). Now, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. A Clockwork Orange uses slang with propensity, so how did Anthony Burges get away with it? He developed an integral slang not used at the time and made sure his prose showed the reader what it meant. The novel was also written during the height of his career and examined ad infinitum by the masses. Want to write like him? Read all his work first.
Reproduction is for the birds and the bees
When I talk about reproducing a conversation that takes place between two people, I mean every part of it. Try this. Grab your cell phone and set it to record. Have a conversation with someone about anything; just make it a real life conversation. Talk about the weather, a sporting event, the latest celebrity gossip—it doesn’t matter what, just talk. Don’t tell them you are recording it, you need this to be a candid as possible. Now, later that day, have your smart phone convert the recorded discussion into text. Replay the conversation and write out everything (and I mean everything) from the first ‘um’ to the last ‘‘kay’. Once you are finished (and the smart phone beeps it is done), read the conversation out loud, as if you were proofreading the work. Heck, even wait a few days in order for the words to be lost from your mind. Now, how does it sound? Crap, right? So, why would you make your reader sit down and try to understand that conversation?
Take out all the idioms and your conversations will still feel natural.
Mangling is for the antagonist
Raise their hand if, at one point, you wrote the dialogue of a character who could not pronounce the letter H the following way:
“‘Ello, Joe. ’Ow’s it been? ‘Aven’t seen you in days. Wife and kids doing well I presume?”
Okay, my hand is up as well. I have been known to do it in the past, but not anymore.
This is a mild case of mangling dialogue. Don’t do it. Just tell the reader how they speak and let them fill in the blanks without wondering what the heck they are saying. Remember, the easier it is for the reader to read your work, the more they will enjoy it. Ultimately you want the reader to say, “I read it and enjoyed it, even with the guy that could not pronounce his H’s.”
Summing it up
As a writer, your job is hard enough without putting yourself through the wringer. Make it easy and write the way you want to see it done with the works you read. Don’t make your reader struggle when they pick up the book.
When you think there is an issue with your dialogue, the best way to figure it out is to have someone read it out loud. If they struggle (and not because of the actual words but the flow), you know there is work to be done.
Follow Doug at his website: http://daowen.ca/