25 January 2007

He said what?

Many people have problems writing dialogue. I think it’s a mental block more than anything. You talk every day--writing dialogue is doing nothing more than moving conversations from vocalization to paper.

Of course, writing historicals puts a new and different twist on dialogue. Some words and phrases have changed meaning over the years. Having my 1920’s heroine say she wants someone to make love to her means something much different to her than to a reader in the 21st century.

But, there are some things writers get hung up on, though it may not be historically accurate. People have been using contractions for hundreds of years, but, for some reason, it’s in people’s heads that it’s more historically accurate for them to say ‘do not’ as opposed to ‘don’t’. Why force a reader to drag themselves through boxy, awkward sentences? And how about writing, say, an ancient Egyptian story? Since you’re obviously not going to write the manuscript in your character’s native language, you have the freedom to let them speak in plain English. Much easier to write and to read than complicated attempts to make them sound Egyptian. Especially since those attempts many times turn out to sound suspiciously like Hadji from Johnny Quest.

To keep your reader firmly based in your time period, a smattering of native words, references to items and places identified with your era/place and acknowledging political, ethical and community traditions will take you much farther than using stilted English ever will.
So, go out there and get talking!


jennifer said...

dialogue never gives me a problem, i can usually hear the person speaking and then go back and put the scene around him. Contractions if i'm going to not use them its not the era of the peice that dictates it whose in teh peice, i'm have a king not use contractions rather than a person living in the country whose never left the town he lived in. I usually go with the formalness of the society i'm writing in, china i go with no contractions the old west yeah. oh and egypt definitly they talk like you and me.

carrie_lofty said...

I tend not to use contractions because I like the formality, but that's just a preference. I was reading Pride & Prejudice the other day and Austen uses contractions quite liberally. After a while, I just decided that it's my story and I'll make my characters sound how I want them to :)

But dang, I have no problem with dialogue. My dialogue fairy actually works overtime. In any given scene I can find places to lose the action and plot just by having an amusing conversation. Dammit you two! Shut up and go DO something!

Tess said...

I LOVE writing dialogue. IT seems to come naturally, especially when the characters are in a good mood *g*. Some of my characters use contractions while others don't - it just seems to depend. My French heroine, who also speaks English, doesn't use them nearly as much as my English hero.

Marjorie Jones said...

I use contractions in my historicals when they fit, too. But I also tend to restructure the sentences in my medievals for dialong, and introspection now that I think about it.

"I don't think so." becomes "I think not." which eliminates the possibility of a contraction anyway. "I could not." however, could easily be "I couldn't." and so I'd use that in dialogue specifically because it's a natural speach pattern to 'mush' our words, so to speak.

In my newest medieval, King Henry and his lovely queen used the royal 'We' while the same characters in the previous book int he series didn't. Not sure how well it's going over because the distribution is so different and not nearly as many folks have access to the second book. We'll have to wait and see... no pun intended.

Lisa Yarde said...

Dialogue is a huge problem for me when I'm writing, especially in scenes where a child and adult are speaking. I've got a four and six year old (both going on 40) at home, so you'd think it might be easy to capture the nuances of a child's speech for use in my writing. Well, it's not. Thing is, their speech is a mirror of the adults. Still raises a few eyebrows when the four-year old says, "I beg your pardon," versus screaming "what?" from across the room.

If I use contractions, it's to differentiate between classes; nobility vs. servants. I know there's a bit of snobbery in that, but I find their use is one way to avoid all my characters sounding alike. I also deliberately use formal, awkward dialogue where it matches the character's personality. Inevitably, I get the question from a reader, "why does character X sound like that?" in the midst of a scene where character x has done nothing but act the part of an uptight, stiff person. So much for speaking style mirroring personality.

The trick in historical fiction is to convey the sense of the period with dialogue and speech characteristics of the time, without making the reader run off to find the origins of some obscure word or phrase. I'm learning everyday it's hard to find the right balance.

Happy writing. Lisa

Karen Mercury said...

Except when the "foreign" speaker actually *is* trying to speak in English. I love making French people speak awkwardly in English. My sister was married to a bodyguard for Prince Albert of Monaco, and her H would say things like "It is the fever of the Saturday Night." We loved how he'd pronounce things like "Jerry Rice" or "Cro Magnon."

I couldn't agree more about the don't vs. do not. In Regencies perhaps, but all of the characters I write are adventuresome foremost, because they're all Americans who made it to a faraway land to begin with. They don't speak formally, and I don't need to worry about many social conventions. For instance, just the other day it occurred to me to wonder, "When going up a flight of stairs, who goes first, the man or woman?" Up until then, I'd never had that situation. I don't think I'd ever had stairs before!

Camilla said...

I have such trouble with dialogue. I'm a big talker, but when it comes down to putting words into my characters mouths, it's a struggle.

what to do, what to do.

Jacquie said...

Good blog post, Delia.

I love writing dialogue! In fact, my first draft is about 80% dialogue. hehehe. This comes from my reading habits, I suppose, because I rarely read more than one paragraph of narrative, then I skip to the next line of dialogue. For me, the story is in the talking--the nuances of speech.

What a character says is not necessarily what he means, and how the opposing character responds (conflict) is what makes the story interesting.

As for contractions, I use them liberally--far more than most writers do. We didn't invent lazy speech, as Delia said (in a tactful way). To me as a reader, formal language used in informal situations makes it that much harder to paint a multi-dimensional character.

Bravo, Delia!


Zoe Archer said...

I love to write dialogue! I find I can look up after a while and see that I've filled pages without even realizing it, but when it comes time to writing prose, then two pages can take all day. Interesting how we all have different feelings and approaches towards it.

I do try to sprinkle in specific cultural references when I'm writing dialogue, or even when writing in close third person, i.e. hearing a character's thoughts. I think it does help ground them and the reader in the setting and time period. I try not to go overboard with these references, since sometimes it can pull readers out of the story, especially if the reference is particularly obscure or glaring obvious that it's purpose is to provide "authenticity." When I've read fiction that was actually written in a specific time period, I find that those details are actually quite scant.

As far as writing for gender is concerned, I generally have my heroes use more contractions and speak in a generally more "loose" fashion than the heroine. Overly precise or refined language can make a hero seem rather effete, or at least, it can mitigate his masculine presence. And, like Tess, when I've written dialogue for characters for whom English is not their first language, I generally avoid them using contractions.

I've just been helping my husband revise his first novel, and one of the things we were both paying attention to was the dialogue of a character who is Italian and speaks good, but not great, English. We spent a lot of time making sure that the verb tenses were consistent. It was a lot of fun.