Thursday, July 13, 2006

IV - Other Incantations

We've sniffed around this subject before.
Characters may screech, growl or hyperventilate at you, but that won't help much if they all sound the same.
Difficulty and criticism arise when a reader cannot distinguish dialogue from the narrative voice of a novel.
Would like to leave dialect off of the list of vocal techniques. Some can handle it exceedingly well - some can't.
Yet, I've seen it used effectively for minor characters whose walk-on appearance is important to promote the plot, provide local colour, humour, or - more importantly - emphasize the background of societal conflict or support facing the main characters. However, effective dialect is a special talent.
A character may have a favourite phrase or expletive. Many of us do. Use it judiciously and at appropriate tense moments.
But, bloody hell, gov'nor, don't try to graft some phoney ethnicity unto a character with some silly, stereotyped and probably inaccurate expression like "begorrah" or "blimey."
The idea is to create individuals, not lego people.
"Zounds" is also worn and tired in historicals, "Mary's tits" ( from a Hugh Corbett mystery - P.C. Doherty) might be more illuminating.
A character may have the habit of quoting poetry or Shakespeare ( Khan, Lord Peter Whimsey) at particular or peculiar moments; or the tendency to utter platitudes to close a conversation ( a spy in the Modesty Blaise series.)
A character may exhibit an urge toward malapropisms or mixed metaphors or mis-pronounce certain words.
A character may switch designation of another character according to mood. The hero was "First," when the captain was annoyed, "John" when events were normal, and "Johnnie-me-boy" when pleased ( The Golden Rendezvous - MacLean).
May refer to others customarily as "Neighbour" (Sparhawk - David Eddings) or to one in particular as "cupcake" ( Ryan - Kathy Reichs.)
A character may use sentence constructions that are excessively formal or may converse in slang and street style. Some may speak staccato; others, long-winded.
And the scene itself may alter a character's mode of speech. A discussion in the barracks will have a vastly different diction from one before a commanding officer.
Internal dialogue may vary from public address - say, by a school teacher to parents during a Meet-the-Creature interview.
As my mother used to say - it's all in how you hold your mouth.

BTW: Bonnie continues her Maass Workbook extracts. Very useful, horse's mouth stuff.


Carla said...

Agreed. I find novels feel a bit flat if all the characters sound the same. It's quite common in historicals, though, because informal speech is so easily slammed as too modern, formal speech as pretentious and any attempt at period colour as incomprehensible or cod medieval. And this is before the author gets into trying to represent dialect, accent, cultural/regional variations in grammar, or language barriers between the characters. I've seen people complain about Sharon Penman using 'it be' and 'certes' and 'mayhap' in dialogue, and on the other side I see people complain about Simon Scarrow using modern expletives in barrack-room conversations. The safe tendency is to gravitate towards a faintly bland all-purpose voice for everyone, including the narrative.

December Quinn said...

Oh, I love Sharon Kay Penman's "certes" and "mayhap"!

I read a medieval once where an English character (clearly there for no purpose other than to be English and therefore a figure of fun to the noble Scots of the book) say, "I say, good fellow..."

I don't even know where to begin in describing everything wrong with that.

(And I think Scots are very noble, being part Scot myself. I just hated the book.)

Scott said...

You better be damn good if you are going to speak in another dialect. A friend of mine recommended Brules, about a old west cowboy delivered in first person narrative. "Ah was mighty pleased, an' that weren't all..." I read about three pages and put it down. McMurtry does a great job in works like Lonesome Dove, but even he can distract you with it. It takes some time to get used to, and the author better not disappoint.

I tried to read Rob Roy and couldn't understand the dialect. It was written a loong time ago--I can't remember when. I'm guessing right around Shakespeare's time.

Flood said...

Watson's narrative of Holmes' adventures is so fantastic. I love the dialogue in these stories so much. Each new character makes me speak some their lines aloud, because the writing is so great. I find each person's pattern of speech to be distinct. Is this what you mean?

Bernita said...

I agree that reader prejudice can be the very devil for the historical writer, Carla.

Be interesting and educational if you would try, December.

Rob Roy was written 1817. The novel was set during the Jacobite risings, circa 1715-45, I believe.
Sir Walter Scott, Scott.
Somehow I have the feeling you knew that.

Yep, Flood. The trick is to make it so without being too precious about it.

Carla said...

Which Rob Roy, Scott? If it was Walter Scott's version, that was written 1815 or thereabouts (and I found it close on impenetrable too).

December - because the line sounds like something Bertie Wooster might have said? And yet, if the character was intended to be English, and a figure of fun, and an ineffectual toff - doesn't that four-word line give just that mental image? It does to me, anyway.

Bernita said...

Wonder if the dialogue would have been as impenetrable to readers 200 years ago?

Erik Ivan James said...


Carla said...

I imagine the style was absolutely fine 200 years ago, at least for middle-class educated people with leisure time to read, because Walter Scott was wildly popular. I don't remember having a problem with the dialogue, despite the dialect, but I do remember the style seemed dreadfully sloooooow and the plot was hard to follow.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik!
Sums up my reaction too, Carla.
Just tedious.

Robyn said...

Scott, yer mah kind of man. Ah hates them Western accents, lessen you need sumpin' ta make ya gag. And like you, Bernita, I've read enough 'right, guvna' street urchins that Oliver Twist is impossible for me to read or view ever again.

I think I've mentioned it before, but I loved Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. When disgusted or dismissive, he made this "Pfui" noise. He needed no dialogue to get his point across.

bookfraud said...

not having read "rob roy," maybe i'm late to the game any case, i've always felt that the overuse of dialect or "ethnic" speech was always a sign of laziness or lack of confidence. i always wonder if, say, a scottish novel featuring americans has them speaking heavily in "dialect," and how that would read. if you're going to use such affectations, there has to be a reason for it. we're not all irvine welsh here. nae git ootay here, ye plukey-faced wanker! whatever that means.

Dennie McDonald said...

it's a delicate balance, a dance if you will, to keep the characters "in character" ...

hell if I know how - but it's fun trying to figure it out!

Bernita said...

Love them too, Robyn!
An excellent example of an exclamation tailored to suit.

Bernita said...

Something like "gang awa' wi' the rest o' the breed," I suspect, Bookfraud. Or, FOAD.
A little goes a looong way, I agree.

It IS fun, is it not, Dennie?

December Quinn said...

Yes, Carla, it does give a mental image, it's just that it's an innacurate one.

The operative word there is medieval. Had it been set in, say, the nineteenth century, it wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest.

The book was set in a time when the majority of England still spoke Norman French. I don't expect the writer to learn or attempt to use Norman French, at least not for such a throwaway scene. But to be completely ignorant of the fact that English was not spoken like that at that time bugged me, especially since they took pains to write the other dialogue in a "medieval soundng" way, which told me they simply had not done their research, especially since the lady the speaker was with was referred to as a "right bit of fluff proper English lady"--again, which did not exist at that time.

It wasn't an issue with the dialogue per se, just the way it was totally inaccurate for late 13th century Scotland or England. (Along with myriad other things in the book. This was the final straw.)

EA Monroe said...

Hail Columbia! My eccentric uncle's favorite expletive.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I've found that the easiest way to add quirks is to take the quirks of someone I know, and give them to a character. That way, whatever I write is an authentic part of a quirk.

I know that woon't always work in period pieces...but that's probably why I don't write in those genres! LOL!

Bernita said...

When I think what I've sweated through and still fearful I've committed dreadful anachronisms...
One wonders how it ever got published, December.

That is a little different, EA.

Right on, Bonnie!
Think a writer's ears are one of his/her most valuable tools when it comes to dialogue.

MissWrite said...

Hi there! Long time no see.

Personally I'm not really a huge fan of dialect writing. Some is okay, but pages full of it can range from bothersome to downright migrane inducing.

Bonnie's point was great. There's much more to what makes a person than simply a dialect. Their dialect is a part of it, but only a part. Attitudes, attire, motions, emotions, amongst other things make up who and what a person is like. The best writers develope the entire character and that's what makes them distinct.

Carla said...

Actually, Bonnie, I'd say there's no reason at all why it shouldn't work in period pieces, unless the quirk is a pathological obsession with baseball - and even then it can be translated; Lindsay Davis has a couple of 'arena bores' in one of her Roman novels who drone on about gladiators in just the same way as men in bars drone about football :-) I borrow mannerisms and tricks of speech all the time. (Whether they work or not, or whether I'd come under December's censure, is in the eye of the reader).

Bernita said...

How nice to see you!
I had about given up clicking grimly each day to see if you had surfaced.
Tami has a new blog.

Sometimes, one swears the only thing that changes is the clothes...
That scene would likely give the reader a jolt of recognition, Carla.
Same thing would work transposing the hair salon to the public baths, I would imagine.

Carla said...

Lindsay Davis has probably done that, Bernita. She has a nice line in graffiti, too. Though she uses modern slang terms like 'wide boy' that don't come from 1st-century Roman Latin. They give exactly the right mental image (to a Brit, anyway, don't know if they translate to the west side of the Pond) but the term itself didn't exist so it's inaccurate. A fine line to tread.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Bernita, I was trying to think how to write a horse whinny...LOL...horses mouth!

Hey...Misswrite....long time no see...welcome back!

Carla...good point, I never thought about translating the actions to the period. I bet that could be a whole study on its own!

Bernita said...

Sounds like fun, Carla, authentic or not!
Didn't recognize the term. Originally a black marketeer? And now someone with bling but no visible means of support?

Bonnie, "whinney" is supposed to be onomatopoeic - but I always hear the sound as "wheeeherherherher."

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Are you sure no one acually says 'begorrah'?

Bernita said...

Not the point, Jean-Luc.
The point is that it is a cheap, lazy-ass, sterotype.
Just like having every Oriental say "Ah so," at the beginning of each bit of dialogue.

Jen said...

My word I "overuse" this way is the hero calling the heroine "baby". This happens to be what my hubby calls me, so I use it a lot.

Bernita said...

Hmmm, a bit generic, Jen, but the use fits some male characters.

archer said...

Even Mark Twain occasionally falls short on this one. Jim's dialogue is very hard to read, and his Bible analyses are just Mark Twain done up in blackface.

Tom Wolfe gets it right, mostly. The opening of Bonfire of the Vanities is a black-white shouting match that gets every tiny nuance right and doesn't call your attention to it.

S. W. Vaughn said...

When dialect is good, it is very, very good... but when it is bad, it is horrid.

I get quite a few self-published titles through my job, and some of them really needed an editor to tell them to can the dialect.

Well executed dialect brings great flavor to novels, though. :-)

S. W. Vaughn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bernita said...

Are you sure of that, Archer?
Seems to me dialect can change just as any other form of language does.
Don't think it's reasonable to compare Wolfe's use with Twain's. Different dialect periods, are they not?
I didn't find Jim difficult to read.

I can imagine, S.W.

It occured to me that I left out lisps and stutters. However, those are not that common in real life, and possibly a little over-done in fiction as a character tag.

kmfrontain said...

Aiee! I was busy all day and only got to see this post now.And so my belated opinion.

Personally, I think a modern writer should only write enough dialect to hint that there is one, and then let the reader dub it in (like dubbing voices for a cartoon). I recently came across a story where a Scottish accent was shown through spelling, so just about every word was spelled wrongly, and this was for a main character. It was awful to read, and yet with the same author, for another character, who had a different nationality, the accent was merely implied through swear words in his tongue. First style sucked the biggie. Second was brilliant. I couldn't figure why the author thought to use the brilliant one mixed in with the bad.

As for trying to exactly copy old usage of English, I say don't bother. Get as close as comfortable, and then just go for dialogue that rings true to the character. Don't go for the whole hog. It's just too much hog for the majority of modern readers. It would be ridiculous to exactly copy all the idioms in usage back in the 1700's for example. A few idioms that make clear sense (or are given sense) are enough to give a character a certain voice.

archer said...

Hmm. Just getting out my Huck here, and on reflection, Bernita's right--I'm just used to hearing Tom Wolfe's black English, so his seems more facile on the page.

M.E Ellis said...

I've got a woman with an accent in Pervalism and 5 P's, though they do work, IMO. I would say that though, hahaha!


Bernita said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Karen.
Should be flavouring, not the entire meal.
Maskes one wonder if some writers jsut want to show off rather than communicate.

Thank you, Archer, I loved Jim and Huck Finn.

"5P's", Michelle?
Don't quite understand.

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