I’ll withhold the ‘Happy New Years’ until we have some actual empirical evidence to work from, until then I’ll say welcome back and I hope you had a safe seasonal period. I know I haven’t done a ‘Year in Review’ (or blogging much at all) but the biggest thing to happen to me this year has been getting Rendered Flesh picked up by Level Up Publishing, and I have been talking about that and will be talking about that and so that leads us to this blog entry.
The success of a story hinges upon it’s ability to immerse and entertain the reader, regardless genre or format. Preserving that immersion is a key aspect of story-telling, the audience will further suspend their disbelief for a story they are fully immersed with. Of course a story is made up of various elements; plot, characters, prose and dialogue and, if any one of these aspects falter or break your audience’s immersion then you start on a slippery slope. Firstly you have to re-establish the immersion and second, the audience remembers each and every time they were dislocated from the story and, every time it happens, it gets harder to win them back.
Today I’m going to discuss dialogue, the content and the presentation of such and, while there is no 100% guaranteed way to win over everybody I’m going to try and help you avoid some of the commonest stumbling blocks.
Whether it’s witty, back-and-forth banter, an emotional plea, or a heart-wrenching monologue, character dialogue is one of the driving forces to the vast majority of story-telling. While there are some phenomenal examples of stories told minus dialogue that’s a different discussion and one I might come back to later in these blogs. So, one of the most important aspects of writing dialogue is to establish a character’s mode of speech, make it distinct and clear so that, should all prose be removed, the audience would still have a good idea of who was speaking. This can be through accents, colloquialisms, catchphrases or, more easily, a mix of all three.
Writing accents, that is using phonetic spellings for specific regional dialects, isn’t a difficult thing. Many examples exist so it’s easy enough to research, take for example ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines. Likewise for a character whose primary language isn’t English a smattering of their native dialect (well researched so as not to break a native speakers immersion) can remind the reader of an accent. The important thing is that they don’t become a parody or stereotype through their mode of speech. It’s easy to write an East-London rude-boi or Essex ‘gangsta’, throw in a bunch of uses of ‘innit’ and ‘bruv’ but, if you want the audience to take the character seriously you don’t want them so much focused on the words being used as what those words say.
Colloquialisms differ, country to country and region to region so it’s quite easy to select a few choice ones for a character to mark them apart. From contractions like ‘ain’t’, or ‘gonna’ to the distinct differences between regional uses of ‘Go bananas’ wherein it can mean cut-loose, go crazy, or get angry. If you’re writing outside of your native language resist the urge to go to Google Translate and turn a saying that you know well into another language. Save a few very universal and well-knows sayings it’s doubtful it will turn out as you expect. The difference there isn’t just language, it’s down to national identity and experience. Often a well researched saying or colloquialism translated properly can liven up a text too, rather than re-using those sayings that we are all so familiar with. The important part is to keep it distinct, to one or two characters. Over-use can lead to confusion and that will break immersion.
Giving a character a catchphrase is a sure way to make them memorable, but you want it to be for the right reasons. I remember the B-Movie horror ‘Deep Rising’ 1998, an enjoyable romp except! Whenever the characters resolved the immediate situation and moved on to the next ‘problem’ the hero would say “What now?” Every. Single. Time. As catchphrases go it’s not even that strong and the movie is proof that, simple repetition does not a catchphrase make. That said, a line delivered once isn’t a catchphrase either (unless it’s very good) and, more-so that other dialogue, a catchphrase has to be carefully crafted, short and punchy. There’s a list of famous catchphrases from UK and US T.V. shows on Wikipedia for you to check out.
Of course, no matter how good the dialogue the manner of delivery can affect the audiences immersion too. My new editor Conor pointed out a compositional tick that I’ve developed. Now, I have no qualifications in literature or creative writing beyond the GCSE level (aside from a lot of reading) and that’s okay, but it does mean I’ve fallen into a particular trap. In school we are taught to try and vary our uses of ‘said’, in my case that has gone so far as to mean that I try to avoid using it at all. I also tend to try to avoid ‘replied’ as well and it’s the sheer effort I go to to avoid these words that draws notice and could be immersion breaking for the reader. It’s something I’m working on.
I also tend, when a line includes dialogue, to open with the dialogue and, unless it impacts directly on the dialogue, follow with an action or descriptive. However, there are other ways to do this if you find it features in your work too. In any sentence involving dialogue the indicator (an included action or descriptor for clarity of emotion/action) can be placed either at the beginning, in the middle of at the end. To borrow the examples Conor gave me;
1. I said, ‘we don’t even know what day it is outside.’ – Wherein the indicator is ‘I said’.
2. ‘We don’t even know,’ I raised my foot to push the table to the side, ‘what day it is outside.’ – Wherein the indicator is the action.
3. ‘We don’t even know what day it is outside,’ I shook my head in dismay. – Wherein the indicator is the action.
Variety is key. You can run these variations in sequence, although the likelihood is that the manuscript will, itself throw in a little variation from time to time, or approach it however you see fit. You can pick up any work by your favourite author and look at how they go about varying the structure of dialogue. If an exchange goes on for a few lines you can drop indicators, you don’t have to use them on every line once an order of speech has been established but, in that case, you lose the visual aspect, the ‘minds-eye’ picture of events so it’s good to throw in some gestures, tone-of-voice etc.
So, at the end of the day, it can be said that great dialogue is a very good start but it doesn’t stand on its own with a discerning audience. How something is said is almost always as important as what is actually being said and, in the instance of the written word, how it’s presented is as important in conveying the true meaning of your character’s words.
With that in mind I wish you all well for the new year and hope your writing hours are productive. Stay safe.