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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Dialogue - Transliteration, Didactism and Dialect

How to Write Dialogue

People often ask me for advice on how to write better dialogue, and I usually fob them off with vague platitudes about listening to people and reading Elmore Leonard. This is because I'd prefer them to chalk up a hit on this blog.

There's no getting around it - writing good dialogue is difficult and complicated. The way I see most people go about it, while making perfect sense on a logical level, is unlikely to be effective. This is because some of the fundamental aspects of writing dialogue are a bit counter-intuitive. Today I intend to tackle three of the basic ones: preserving the feel of the spoken word, didactic function and the minefield which is dialect.


The Watergate transcripts are practically unreadable.
In one of my many previous jobs, I had to sit in a small room with headphones in and type up the transcript of a court proceeding. As I was listening to the defendant droning on about safety ropes and danger signs, I realised that I was actually editing his speech as I went. Don't get me wrong - I wasn't coming over all Grammar Nazi on the poor bloke - it was simply that his perfectly sound speech patterns, translated directly into prose, were pretty well unintelligible.

Of course, I can't show you what I mean by publishing the transcript I was working on, but Steven Pinker, in his excellent book: The Language Instinct, gives us a really good example using the transcripts of the Watergate recordings.

NIXON: The grand jury thing has its, uh uh uh - view of this they might, uh. Suppose we have a grand jury proceeding. Would that, would that, what would that do to the Ervin thing? Would it go right ahead anyway?

Herein lies the problem - so much of face to face dialogue is non-verbal that a strict rendition of the words actually used will generally become a collection of nonsensical sentence fragments. The writer's job, then, is to convert the spoken word into clear prose which is still suggestive of natural speech.

I think that this mainly comes down to cadence. If we look at Shakespeare or Eminem or any other great poet of human speech, we find that one of the most important factors is meter. This suggests that the rhythm of a passage of dialogue is at least as important as the content. Paying closer attention to cadence can go a long way to making dialogue sound natural without compromising meaning. The excerpt above, for example, could be rendered this way:

"This Grand Jury thing - suppose we have a Grand Jury? What do you think that would that do to the Ervin thing? Do you think it'd go right ahead anyway?"

As we can see, cleaning up the section where Nixon is floundering for a phrase makes it more comprehensible, and the use of a dash indicates his hesitation without confusing the reader with fragmentary verbiage. Additionally, we indicate the hesitant cadence of his questioning by adding words to slow down the rhythm of the questions. Adding "What do you think" and "Do you think" preserves the tentative feel of "would that, would that, what would that do", without bombarding the reader with weirdness.

To sum this point up - it's a kind of transliteration: a way of encoding rhythm, sense and feel without compromising meaning.


"Let me explain to you, at great length, a bunch of stuff you should already know."
Unless you're Elmore Leonard, it's pretty safe to say that all dialogue performs a didactic function of some kind. It either has to move the plot forward, reveal relevant information or, at the very least, reveal character. If it doesn't do any of these things, the obvious question is, "Why would anyone read it?" You may very well be in love with the interplay of your two characters, but if the conversation doesn't tell the reader anything new, it will represent an annoying flat spot in your narrative. There are exceptions, of course. I mentioned Elmore Leonard, for example, whose novels tend to consist of fascinating, aimless dialogue punctuated by annoying breaks into narrative. Thing is, though - very few people are Elmore Leonard. At present, I count one.

Having said that, there are few things which feel clumsier than obviously didactic dialogue. Take any prime time television drama, for example, and you will find it littered with passages where characters are carefully explaining plot elements to other characters who should already know. NCIS is a major culprit for this, as is almost every sci-fi show ever made.

This is where careful structuring comes in. Doctor Who uses a brilliant device in the form of the Doctor's companion. The fact that there is always a clueless newbie by his side gives him practically limitless scope to explain any and every occurrence, object and character they come across. This, of course, is not appropriate to every situation, so authors need to be careful not to write themselves into a corner, so to speak.

The explanatory use of dialogue should be judicious, limited and, above all, realistic. If you encounter a passage of dialogue which sounds stilted and crap no matter what you do, it may be worth looking at what comes before and after. It could very well be that a structural failing elsewhere has forced you to insert un-saveable dialogue. Fixing this and just deleting any 'Macgyver explanations' may be the best solution.


Put simply, dialect is a nightmare. Do I use phonetic spelling? Do I do this for every word, or just indicatively for key words? And how do I choose those key words? Is it a cop-out to just mention the character has an accent and then write their speech normally? How the hell do you spell the way South Africans grunt?

I have no firm opinions on any of the above, but I do know two things. Faithfully rendering accents phonetically almost always makes for unreadable prose, and clumsiness with dialect is a guaranteed deal-breaker for readers and publishers alike. Happily, as writers we stand on the shoulders of giants. Or, to put it more bluntly, there's plenty of people we can steal from.
One of the funniest scenes in literature.
Charles Dickens, when he isn't unrealistically putting formal English into the mouths of his working class heroes, serves as a good case in point. One of his most triumphant creations is Sam Weller, the cockney manservant of the indomitable Mr Pickwick. It helped that Dickens was a Londoner, and therefore steeped to the gills in the Cockney of Victorian times. This is an important point - dialect and accent need to be approached in the same way as learning another language. Immersion is vitally important - if you haven't internalised the rhythm and feel of an accent, don't use it. It'll just be crap.

Dickens noted that the main features of the Victorian Cockney were the frequent transposition of 'V' and 'W', the dropping of 'h' and the use of different long vowel sounds. In the excerpt from The Pickwick Papers provided below, we can see how minimally, but effectively, Dickens represents this.

Here a voice in the gallery exclaimed aloud, "Quite right too, Samivel, quite right. Put it down a 'we', Lord, put it down a 'we'."
"Who is that, who dares address the court?"said the little judge, looking up.
"Do you know who that was, sir?"
"I rayther suspect it was my father, my lord," replied Sam.

Another example is provided by the master hand of Patrick O'Brian. The famously grumpy Preserved Killick, steward to Captain Aubrey, speaks with a thick rustic accent derived from a tiny village now swallowed up by present day London. Well before I'd watched David Threlfall's excellent realisation of Killick, I was able to hear the dialect in the character's voice. This is surprising, considering how little O'Brian does in the way of transliteration. A typical line for Killick would read thusly:

"Which it will be ready when it is ready."

It can be seen that absolutely nothing has been done to the spelling - O'Brian has merely found a telling grammatical variation (which it will) and used it to indicate a whole wealth of sound. A similar technique can be used for some Irish accents. The grammatical quirk contained in "I'll be after seeing where he is" can do great service, where phonetic rendering would serve only to confuse and annoy.

It can be seen from this that the main qualification for being able to write various accents is to know them with sufficient intimacy to be able to isolate and use their key components. Not exactly a short cut, I know, but so little with writing actually is.


Well, I hope you found this helpful. If you think I've missed anything, violently disagree with me on any point, or wish to inform me of a lucrative way to work from home, that's what comments sections are made for. Happy writing!

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