Friday, August 2, 2019

Speech and Dialogue

As I sat in one of the many writing workshops I attend, I found myself oddly drawn to a particular narrative. Sue Mydliak, author of the Birthright series and other works, was reading from her upcoming novel, Elspeth. The story is in 1700s Scotland, therefore the Scottish brogue is quite prevalent. However, something felt unusual, yet I couldn't explain it. I just listened, critiqued, and tried to figure things out.

The Sorting Hat scene from 
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,
in Scottish Brogue
During the discussion portion, one of our members crystallized what I had been noticing. He said, in so many words, that it is a delicate task to write dialogue with an accent, and too often, people let the accent define the character. The character's voice had to be clear, distinct, and consistent, but it could not be a substitute for meaningful words that drive the plot and fill in the character. In Elspeth, the character has her brogue, but it was the character that drew me in. The dialect became a complementing factor to the characters, filling in the story like description or mood. I was enjoying the story without even noticing it.

At that point, I immediately thought about all the period pieces I've read and written where the regional dialect is perfect and fascinating, but I was more interested in the character's Mississippi twang or slow southern drawl than the actual character. This is very deceptive, particularly in short stories. If I write a quick, one-thousand-word story where the protagonist has a Chicago tilt to their speech, readers will find it interesting, even amusing, and read the piece. However, if that story goes on without any real statement of movement; if the elements of the story are weak, readers will finish it and talk about the character's voice, but not much else will stick. They might not even remember the story. Maybe that's okay for a short story, but as that short story expands to a larger work, it will be empty calories for the reader.

The man making the comment in our workshop used an example from acting to define this: "Let the character drive the accent rather than the accent drive the character." Following that rule is what made Elspeth so appealing, and disobeying it is what often makes stories become immensely forgettable.

But how do we do this?

I did a little investigation, and there seems to be a consensus about the best technique to follow. When you set the stage for a conversation between someone from Boston, someone from Prague, and someone from Sydney, write the dialogue clean and sterile. Use proper English, clean grammar, and lay out the discussion without all the distractions. If the dialogue doesn't work before the accents are added, it sure won't work afterwards; it will just sound different. The exchange of ideas is the core of any dialogue or narrative.

The next step is to consider any specific miscommunications or confusions that might play a role. This is not mandatory, but can add a natural feel to open discussion. Referred to as The Tower of Babel rule, it's our nature to not understand each other, so take advantage of it. If you ask a Londoner the time and they answer, "half-five," is that 4:30 or 5:30? Let the explanations begin.

Lastly, turn it into their dialect. Add the little bends and folds in their voice that make it distinct. Drop in as many y'alls or finnas or Hahvahd Yahds as you wish. Above all else, be consistent - inconsistent dialect is destructive to good dialogue. This creates the tonal appeal of dialogue that is already built on strong bones.

And when it comes out, read Sue Mydliak's Elspeth. It's going to be a winner.

4 comments:

  1. Oh. My. Goodness. This ... I am honored at what you had to say. I sometimes don't think I am a good writer, just an 'ok' one at that, but nothing to ring home about (did I say that right?) Anyway, thank you for your words. They have touched my heart. I am doing my best with Elspeth, by not rushing through it, listening to everyone's comments and just making it the best story I've ever done. I'm just hoping I get it done in time for October! You, my dear friend, are an amazing writer yourself. So, again, thank you for your kind words and your helpful tips and ideas you give me at our meetings. Very helpful indeed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to help. Your one of those writers who is better than she realizes, and that's a source of strength. Keep on going with it.

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