Self editing 4 fiction #6 ~ Gift of the Gab

The Gift of the Gab

It seems that authors either love or hate writing dialogue – and their proficiency can often correlate with their love or hatred of the art. Often, with new authors, one can wonder whether they are actually going to get round to placing any dialogue in their narrative, such is the early paucity of it.

Some writers have a natural ability to create great dialogue: if they haven’t studied dialogue mechanics, perhaps they have been avid readers for decades and have naturally assimilated the art – and art it surely is, because dialogue in novels pays only lip service to speech interactions in real life (excuse the pun).

It’s all a trick, really. Take an example of authentic dialogue:

“Good morning, Jill.”
“Good morning, Jack. How was your weekend?”
“Oh, you know: I spent some time sorting out my sock drawer on Saturday morning, then slobbed out for the rest of the day.”
“I didn’t get up until after eleven,” Jill said. “I decided to switch off my alarm rather than press the snooze button, so I didn’t get an awful lot done. I woke up with a pounding headache.”

If you’re still awake (and don’t have a headache by now) you will understand why we have to use a clever kind of shorthand – in other words, cut to the chase and include mainly what will take the story forward. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but with a few tips and tricks under your belt, your dialogue can bring your characters and story to life.

Abandoning grammar rules

Speech is far more informal than the written word so it is important to discard formal grammar to an even greater degree than when writing your narrative (more about that later in the series). Generally, speakers contract some words (isn’t rather than is not) and omit words – and we must accentuate this in order to keep the story flowing. Speakers are also likely to make erroneous contractions, such as: “There’s no options left open to us, Captain.” rather than: “There’re no options left open to us, Captain.” so when editing, resist the urge to correct any natural contractions that are not grammatically correct if they sound right.
Using comma splices (run on sentences) with restraint can make a series of short sentences in a speaker’s dialogue smoother and less clunky on the page. Sentence fragments (omitting words or not completing a sentence) are very important if we are to construct good dialogue. These are all relevant examples of why we should abandon grammar rules.

Sounding it out

Many tutorials suggest that reading the dialogue aloud is a good way to evaluate dialogue, and I agree that this is a useful technique – but only to a degree. Useful though this is, there is an inner ear that readers use when reading internally, so it’s a kind of balancing act between the two, and remember, we are emulating speech in a shorthand setting, in effect. So, read it out loud by all means, then read it with your inner ear.

Misdirection and such

In real life, people interrupt one another, misunderstand what is being said, or respond in a somewhat enigmatic way in some instances (usually when they are engrossed in their own interior thoughts). If we incorporate such devices they enhance the characterisation of the players, and therefore the readers’ experience. A basic example of an enigmatic response:

“What on earth did you think you were doing, Jill?” Jack said. “You could have burned the bloody house down.”
“I’m okay, really…”

As you can see, Jill didn’t actually answer Jack’s question because she is preoccupied with something.
Also in that example, you can see how effective it is to place Jack’s speaker attribute in a natural pause, rather than at the end of his dialogue, which is very useful for long lines of dialogue because it also identifies the speaker early on.

Blending dialogue with narrative and PoV, and using beats

As explained in the last article, a beat is a small piece of action that can add to the scene as well as dispense with the need for a speaker attribute. Here is an excerpt from a scene of mine, which juggles the dialogue of five characters, is based in the Scottish Highlands, and has a most of the components listed above:

Carmen followed the breakfast aroma down the winding stairs and into the hotel dining room. Her skin tingled from the cold shower she’d endured to clear the booze-induced fog from her mind. Gene still lay in a heap on the chaise longue upstairs. He sure would be sheepish if he remembered trying to get into bed with her. The pay wasn’t that good, she’d told him as he lumbered in front of her with that stupid grin on his face.
The morning light slanted in through the tall windows of the oak-panelled room. Carmen narrowed her eyes as Sandra shimmied through the sunbeam mirage towards her.
 “Do you like your eggs easy over, Mrs. Davies?” Sandra asked. “Unless you’re a vegan. We’ve got cornflakes and toast and some nice home-made jam.”
 “Over easy’s good,” Carmen said.
 “Vic said to ask if you know what black pudding’s made of.”
 Carmen laughed. “Yes I do. Hold the pigs’ blood, Sandra.”
 “He also said the lads would be honoured if you and Mr. Davies had breakfast in the nook with them.”
 “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
 “Coffee or tea?”
 “Tea if it’s strong, coffee for Gene, please.”
They rose to welcome her and Harry pulled out her chair again. She loved these old soldiers. She’d listened to reel after reel of their exploits, courtesy of the war museum archive. They were heroes for sure. The great game. If only she had a time machine.
 “Hey, guys. What a night it was.”
 “Best ever,” Gordon said. “Well, up with the best anyway, absent friends and all, you know.”
 “I think I know,” Carmen said. “Must have been real scary behind the lines.”
 “Funny really,” Gordon said, “but we tried to make light of even the most dangerous situations. Can’t deny it was an adventure, though.”
 Harry waved his porridge spoon toward the door. “It’s young Gene! Fell out of bed, he has. How’s the head this morning?”
 “Not good, Harry – bad, even.” Gene sat down carefully. “What time did you and Vic hit the hay?”
 Harry grinned. “We didn’t. I’m off for a kip, soon as I’ve put a lining on the old stomach.”
 Gene pinched the bridge of his nose. “You guys… Is Vic sleeping it off right now?”
 “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Gordon said. “Knowing Vic, he’ll get the conductor to wake him up when the train reaches Glasgow.”
 Carmen flinched. Damn. The book. He hadn’t signed it for her. And after such a lucky introduction. She’d have some explaining to do back at headquarters but at least she’d gotten a hair sample from the en-suite bathroom along with the photos she’d taken last night.
 Sandra arrived with a coffee pot, a small jug of cream and a bowl of brown sugar. She set them next to Gene.
 “Thanks, Sandra,” Gene said. “Can you get our bar tab? Not straight off, after breakfast’s okay.”
 Sandra frowned. “You have no tab, Mr. Davies. Vic, you see, he takes care of everything. Isn’t that right, boys?” She stuck a teaspoon into the sugar. “He said the two of you are honorary members of the section and to be sure Mam puts you on the guest list next year.”
 Carmen smiled to herself. The guy was seventy-six; looked much younger. Gallant, witty, enlightened. He was the intrinsic alpha male, minus the baggage. If she’d been around in those days…
 Pity Mickey Brennan hadn’t shown – where in hell was he? Vic Williams didn’t seem to know.
 Maybe he didn’t know anything.

~ ~ ~

Hopefully, the narrative and dialogue conveys that Carmen and Gene are American guests.
We are in Carmen’s Point of View and incorporate this in the narrative.
We identify the speaker early by adding the attribute in the first natural pause when the dialogue is lengthy (e.g. “Best ever,” Gordon said. “Well, up with the best anyway, absent friends and all, you know.”)
We have lots of contractions in dialogue, and also some in Carmen’s PoV.
We have plenty of beats to add to the scene and identify speakers – some of them incorporated within the dialogue itself to provide a natural pause (e.g. Sandra sticking the spoon into the sugar).
We have comma splices (run on sentences) in dialogue: “Well, up with the best anyway, absent friends and all, you know.” and “…Not straight off, after breakfast’s okay.”
We have sentence fragments, such as: “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” and in Carmen’s PoV: Pity Mickey Brennan hadn’t shown…
Carmen doesn’t correct Sandra’s attempt to speak in U.S. vernacular (eggs easy over) but does say it correctly in response (over easy).
We also have misdirection when Carmen misinterprets Gordon’s observation that they had had better nights (with his old mates) and she reasons that it must have been scary behind enemy lines. Again, Gordon doesn’t clarify what he meant to Carmen and (quite naturally) goes with the flow of the new direction of the conversation.
The five characters have their own unique voices.

Handling vernacular and foreign language/speakers

I’ll use a (predictable) example of Mark Twain’s writing to illustrate why we shouldn’t go overboard when writing vernacular into dialogue. If we use too many made-up words to convey the vernacular it jolts the (modern) reader and slows the flow of the story. So, here is an excerpt from Huck Finn (surprise, surprise) but with an example of how you can provide a restrained version, yet still convey the mood of vernacular.

“What fog?” [Huck asks Jim after he has had an intense dream]
“Why de fog. De fog dat’s ben aroun’ all night. En didn’t you whoop, en didn’t I whoop, tell we got mix’ up in de islands en one on us got los’ en t’other one was jis’ as good as los’, ’kase he didn’t know whah he wuz? En didn’t I bust up agin a lot er dem islands en have a turrible time en mos’ git drowned? Now ain’ dat so, boss – ain’t it so? You answer me dat.

Now, on to a more palatable portion of vernacular:

“Why the fog, The fog that’s been aroun’ all night. An didn’t you whoop, an didn’t I whoop, till we got mixed up in the islands an one of us got lost an the other one was just as good as lost, ’cause he didn’t know where he wuz? An didn’t I bust up against a lot of them islands an have a turrible time an almos’ got drowned? Now ain’t that so, boss – ain’t it so? You answer me that.

Sanitized though it is, it still conveys the general vernacular for the internal reader.

Foreign speakers and portraying another language.

When I went to work abroad, I found that I had to speak formal English, without contractions or much slang, in order to be understood fully by the English-speaking natives. And the inverse applies: many non-native speakers do not contract their speech or use slang that is common to the country they are in. If you are to portray non-native speakers it pays to find some film footage to listen to, if possible, or perhaps read a portrayal by an accomplished author.

As an example of an accomplished author writing dialogue as if it is another language (but in English so the reader can understand it) here is a review excerpt of The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré, written by Ed McBain:

It comes as no surprise that le CarrĂ©’s tone-perfect ear can recreate in English even the cadences and styles of people speaking in foreign tongues. Listen, for example, to the German girl Britta, a prisoner of the Israelis, talking to Ned in her native tongue, transcribed as English:
“Are you inadequate, Mr. Nobody? I think perhaps you are. In your occupation, that is normal. You should join us, Mr. Nobody. You should take lessons with us, and we shall convert you to our cause. Then you will be adequate.”
Isn’t that German we’re reading?

Next up: Interior Monologue

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  1. I'd like to hear more about the differences between reading out loud and reading with the inner ear.

    Two observations: I happen to have a linguistics background in conversational analysis, so I am very aware of how people speak versus how they write. But most people are not very aware of how they actually speak, thinking their speech is far more grammatical than it actually is. One way to become more linguistically self-aware is to notice how people we know speak to us, and how we speak to them. For example, I have recently noticed that I say " 'specially' and not "especially" even though I have told nonnative speakers not to do so.
    My other observation: It is hard to find that balance between faithfully representing how people talk, versus having the reader (and sometimes even my editor) think the author doesn't know grammar! Hearing more from you on this problem would be useful. Thank you for this fine series of articles.

    1. Thanks for those valuable observations (and the kind words!). A client of mine used an editor who "corrected" all the vernacular in dialogue and PoV! She even went so far as to correct U.S. spellings with UK ones! (it was for a U.S. author). Editors usually intuit whether so-called typos are actually intended (novels are not dissertations).

      So it is useful to provide editors/proofreaders with a list of what you want:

      1. Please leave vernacular in dialogue and PoV
      2. Please don't correct: "transversitite" "singsonged" "muthahumpa" (etc.)
      3. etc.

      The inner ear is a kind of compromise between actual speech and what is usually left in: *in the modern reading framework we are accustomed to*.

  2. You say that Twain has strayed from consistency by using both ain’ and ain’t.

    I disagree. Note that the letter 't' is used when the next word begins with a vowel. It isn't necessary when a consonant comes next.

    The dialect originates in the north of England, where you can still hear people say in't instead of isn't. The 't' is usually dropped or replaced with a glottal stop when the next word starts with a consonant.

    1. The example I gave is not the best one -- and I agree that losing the 't' before a consonant is what Twain aimed for (as well as using 'Hain't' after a soft word). My bad -- but a few lines later Jim says: "Well, den, I reck'n I did dream it, Huck; but dog my cats ef it ain't de powerfulest dream I ever see."

      Thanks for the input, Mungo -- I will remove the consistency content because the example, as you pointed out, is actually what Twain aimed for (though he does stray in other passages).

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