Since Annie Pearson and I last chatted about dialogue, I’ve been meaning to say something about capturing the unique aspects of a person’s speech.
Jim Rollins and I recently talked about this issue.
If you read thrillers, you know who he is. If you don’t, look at his Bookshelf and check out the best seller lists he’s topped and the awards he’s garnered. Jim speaks at writers conferences; he’s a fine teacher because he knows his craft. And, as a friend, I’d be seriously remiss if I didn’t mention that he’s got a new book coming out this fall—INNOCENT BLOOD—and a spring release titled KILL SWITCH: great reads guaranteed, and polished craftsmanship we can call learn from.
Here are some comments Jim had on the matter of dialogue and dialect. I have some notes of my own that follow this conversation.
DON: Jim, when you’re creating a character, do you give any immediate thought to the unique voice of that character? Or does that come as the story unfolds?
JIM: For me, it’s about learning who the character is during the flow of the story. It’s only in that furnace that I discover who that character truly is. Unfortunately this often means having to go back and rework that character after finally learning the true nature of that guy or gal. But I like this method, as the character becomes born out of the story, making them “fit” naturally into it versus trying to shoehorn a pre-made character into a storyline.
DON: Do you ever draw a character’s dialogue (in part or wholly) from a real person? (I’m assuming that, if you do, you’re very cautious about it, or I’d be sending this to some jailhouse.)
JIM: I’ve never done that fully, but I always have my ear out for some turn of phrase or snatch of conversation that intrigues me and I jot it down. Eavesdropping is a great tool for a writer to hone.
DON: Have you ever considered characters who speak in dialect? Assuming you don’t want to swamp your readers with that sort of thing, how do you avoid it while still capturing the flavor of it?
JIM: I hate when writers spell out phonetically some foreign speaker’s dialog. It stops a reader’s natural flow in a story and turns them into a puzzle-solver, forcing them to try to figure out what that speaker is saying. I prefer to flavor my foreign speaker by leaning on that language’s natural colloquialisms and manner of speech. And I’ll occasionally pepper in a foreign word.
DON: You deal with exotic locales and personalities. How do you deal with other languages or the slang from other places?
JIM: Using the tools described above, here’s an example from my next book (The Kill Switch), using a Russian speaker as an example:
“I do you better than bonus,” Fedoseev offered. “You become part of my team. Permanent part. I am generous. Your dog will eat steak every night. He would like that, yes?”
“Ask him yourself.”
Fedoseev’s gaze flicked toward Kane, then he smiled and wagged his finger at Tucker. “Very funny.” He tried a different angle. “You know, these two suka may have had a helper. If he is still around—”
Suka was one of Fedoseev’s favorite slang terms. Roughly and politely, a suka meant scumbag.
DON: My pal, Annie Pearson, said to ask this: How do you let readers know what untranslated phrases mean without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks?
JIM: See the example above, where I actually roughly translate the word. But sometimes it’s a matter of context and tone, where no translation is necessary. Again from The Kill Switch, here are both methods used:
“Priest tells me fly,” Fedor added in badly broken English. “Fly you tonight.”
Tucker nodded. “Spasiba.”
“Da. Your Russian bad.”
Here the reader may not know that spasiba means “thank you,” but there is enough context for the reader to understand that Tucker is agreeing with the Russian pilot.
Also, Don, as you and I noted about “speaking your dialog”:
I learned early on that a great way of knowing if dialog works is to read your work aloud. It is there that I’ll often find bits and pieces that don’t work.
Someone once told me that you should be able to take out any piece of dialog from a novel, read it aloud, and someone familiar with the book should know who that character is. The goal is to strive to make each character’s cadence, diction, and vocabulary consistent enough that the character’s dialog becomes a unique trait for that individual.
Since that discussion with Jim, one element I’ve been thinking about a lot is dialect. To be clear:
I dislike written dialect—a whole lot.
It doesn’t make me feel any closer to the character or any more involved. What it makes me feel is imposed on by someone who’s deliberately misspelling words or inventing phonetics unknown outside the Tropical Bird Exhibit at the zoo.
So how do we account for the fact that Zorba the Greek speaks English with an accent that could easily sour your skanopita? In plain fact, we can’t really approximate the sound of his English. What we can do, however, is concentrate on some highlights—impress them on the reader early on.
If one of your characters notes that Zorba pronounces is as eez, we’re on our way. A few scanty references to other variants is usually enough to anchor the reader in the dialect.
More, there’s a tendency among all of us to alter our speech when we shift into a second language. Your character, Greek or not, will probably speak a bit more slowly than a native speaker. There will also be awkward phrasing from time to time; it may be a single word, but it’s enough to catch the attention of the reader, thus reminding him/her that the speaker has a unique facet.
Listen to someone whose English is a second language.
Even those who’ve spoken English since childhood occasionally entertain some personal quirks in their use of the language. I have a very close friend whose speech is practically indistinguishable from someone born here (which she wasn’t). But she does something with “little” that always stops me cold. If she wants to describe a small portion, it comes out:
“…a li’la bit.”
Another time she may say:
“…a li’la while later…”
If the character in your novel has a similar quirk, you can call on it at any time to remind your reader that this character is unique—and isn’t unique character what we always shoot for?
It’s a small thing, and dangerously easy to overdo, but I don’t think there’s anything a writer can do with dialogue to better enhance a character’s singularity than attach a singular quality to his/her speech.
I’m not advocating a cast of characters drawn from U.N. membership. All I’m saying is:
Look for the vocal tag with the same industry you apply to physical appearance.
I’ve been musing with Annie Pearson on craft topics for a while, and we’ve been sharing ideas back-and-forth here. We’re looking for other writers to share in the exchanges—just like we would after-hours at a writers’ conference. We’re talking about structure now. Let me know if you want to chat about that or any topics related to writers craft.
Thank you for the discussion on dialect and dialogue. It was quite helpful. I’ll be referring to this blog as needed when I write dialogue. Like you, I dislike written dialect.
Great interview, Don! I heartily agree about overuse of dialect, and how little it takes to capture a flavor of speech. I will refer my writing students to this useful advice!