Do you write stylised dialogue or naturalistic dialogue or something in between? What are the benefits and pitfalls of writing dialects and accents? Should you use phonetic spellings? If you do want your dialogue to be close to spoken language, what techniques can you employ to make conversations sound natural? D.D. Johnston takes a look at the tricky business of writing different voices.
Video transcript follows below:
Good dialogue isn’t the same as real speech – which is boring and often incomprehensible – but nor is it the same as formal written English. It’s always somewhere in between. But how close to real speech you want your dialogue to be will depend on the sort of story you’re writing. For instance, linguistic naturalism is important to Irvine Welsh
– Thing is so Spud, whin yir intae skag, that’s it. That’s aw yuv goat tae worry aboot. Ken Bily, ma brar, likes? He’s jist signed up tae go back intae the fuckin army. He’s gaun tae fuckin Belfast, the stupid cunt. Ah always knew that the fucker wis tapped. Fuckin imperialist lackey. Ken whit the daft cunt turned roond n sais tae us? He goes: Ah cannae fuckin stick civvy street. Bein in the army it’s like bein a junky. The only difference is that ye dinnae get shot at so often bein a junky. Besides, it’s usually you that does the shootin.
– That, eh, likesay, seems a bit eh, fucked up like man. Ken?
– Naw but, listen the now. You jist think aboot it. In the army they dae everything fir they daft cunts. Feed thum, gie the cunts cheap bevvy in scabby camp clubs tae keep thum fae gaun intae toon n lowerin the fuckin tone, upsettin the locals n that. Whin they git intae civvy street, thuv goat tae dae it aw fir thumsells.
– Yeah, but likesay, it’s different though cause… (Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting)
But it was much less important to JG Ballard:
I took a spare copy of the appointments list from my breast pocket and placed it in front of Frances. ‘Recognize the names?’
‘All of them.’ She ran a varnished finger down the column, stabbing at those who had died. ‘Mostly the great and the good.’
‘I took it from David’s computer. I think it’s a hit list.’
‘That makes sense. It even includes Wilder Penrose. Good for David – let’s kill all the psychiatrists.’
‘You don’t like Penrose?’ ‘
‘He’s charming, in that brutal way of his. Eden-Olympia is a huge experiment for him. All that brochure speak about the first intelligent city, the ideas laboratory of the future. He takes it seriously.’
‘Sure. We’re the vanguard of a new world aristocracy. Penrose would get a shock if he knew that one of his prize pupils set out after breakfast to kill him.’
‘I don’t think he’d mind.’
‘Of course not. He’d be flattered.’ (J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes)
If you want your dialogue to move closer on the scale to real speech then here are some naturalistic touches you might want to deploy:
1: Short speeches – in conversation we don’t normally speak for more than a couple of sentences without reply, even if the other person only says ‘Aha.’
2: Interruptions and questions – ‘Really?’ ‘You sure?’ ‘You’re kidding!’ The pace of a conversation is enhanced if people are interrupted in the middle of– This is best indicated with a dash– (longer than a hyphen).
3: Filling words – Because we need time to think, we fill our speech with meaningless words and phrases: ‘So anyway, I’m like, f***ing, at the end of the day, I’m not trying to be funny but, you know? I mean, seriously.’
4: Elision, ellipsis and contractions – In speech we miss out words and syllables or contract them together. We often say ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’, ‘I’d’ve’ instead of ‘I would have,’ and it’s only in formal speech that someone would say ‘she is,’ instead of ‘she’s.’ Often we don’t finish sentences once we realise the meaning is clear: ‘I went to the library on a bank holiday and of course…’ Or we finish each other’s sentences: ‘…it was shut.’
5: Structural utterances – A lot of what we say has no purpose other than bonding the structure of the conversation, being polite, and making sure that what you say doesn’t seem like a non sequitur. ‘Aha,’ means ‘go on, I’m listening.’ ‘It’s true but, isn’t it?’ and ‘yeah it’s like…’ show agreement with what’s just been said and prepares space for a new example. Without a few of these linguistic structures your dialogue may seem artificial.
6: Rhetorical questions – Informal conversation often employs the question form: ‘Did ah give a monkey’s?’ Questions in conversation are rarely meant to be answered.
7: Incoherence, confusion and pauses – E.g., when a character asks for something to be repeated: ‘You still seeing Tina?’ / ‘You what?’ / ‘Tina, you still seeing her?’ / ‘Oh Jesus no, that was a long time ago.’ And of course they can hesitate or pause, ‘I’m eh… I’m sorry,’ though generally speech is better rendered with syntax and filling words than with multiple ellipses, ehs, and ums. My personal opinion is that you should never write eh or um. If you want to indicate pauses then use ellipses
8: Finally, there’s the question of Dialect and phonetic spellings
Dialects are types of speech specific to a region, class, or subculture; a farm hand from Kentucky speaks in a different dialect from an Edinburgh heroin addict. Please don’t ever write an accent. I once asked a student what sort of accent he was writing and he said it was ‘a general working class accent.’ There is no such thing. An Edinburgh heroin addict doesn’t have the same accent as a Kentucky farm hand, or a Jamaican railway worker. If you are going to do an accent then be sure you know that accent well and can render it accurately.
To what extent should we attempt to capture the sound of regional speech phonetically? Phonetically means impersonating pronunciation, e.g., fo-netikalay. Clearly, if you started writing dialogue such as: ‘Doo yoo no the fo-netik al-fa-bet?’ then you would be in serious trouble. But phonetic spellings have long been used to indicate where particular speech patterns differ from Received Pronunciation. Sometimes the effect has been awful: in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, for example, certain dialogue is almost painful (‘Bud, I can look for norther horse nur man on a neeght loike this – as black as t’ chimbley’). The history of phonetic dialect in fiction is uncomfortably implicated with prejudicial ideas about race and class, so it’s not surprising that writers are often cautioned against it. Janet Burroway writes:
Dialect should always be achieved by word choice and syntax and misspellings kept to a minimum. They distract and slow the reader, and worse, they tend to make the character seem stupid rather than regional. There is no point in spelling phonetically any word as it is ordinarily pronounced: almost all of us say things like “fur” for for, “uv” for of, “wuz” for was, “an” for and, “sez” for says. Nearly everyone drops the g in words ending in ing, at least now and then. When you misspell these words in dialogue, you indicate that the speaker is ignorant enough to spell them that way when he or she writes.
But removing phonetic spellings would detract from the work of such modern writers as James Kelman, Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh, Gayl Jones, and David Foster Wallace. Perhaps the best advice comes from Anne Lamott: ‘Dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine. If other writers read your work and rave about your use of dialect, go for it. But be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read.’
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Adrian Snood. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here: http://www.adriansnoodphotography.com/