I was reading a post a week or so ago (I’ve lost the link now) by erastes
who mentioned in passing that the historical romance writer Georgette Heyer apparently made up a lot of the slang in her Regency and other historical novels. I think I’d read that before, but I’d forgotten it. Anyway, Erastes didn’t like this about Heyer’s work. And, since inaccuracy is one of the things that typically drives me mad, I was wondering why this particular inaccuracy didn’t bother me. Why, in fact, I sort of thought it was…clever. Even admired it.
And this is the interesting thing about humans – a good thing to remember when you’re receiving book reviews – for every person who doesn’t like what you do, there is someone who will like it. The trick to success is in pleasing more people than you displease, but regardless: you can’t please everybody. It’s such a simple fact, I think we forget how true – painfully true – it is.
Anyway, back to dialog. As I started thinking about Heyer and her made up slang, a couple of things occurred to me. The first is that this isn’t a new phenomenon or even frowned on in the literary tradition. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler – many of the Black Mask boys made up their hardboiled slang – and, ironically, their slang made it into the vernacular of the day. And The Sopranos is another good example – a current example. I was reading somewhere where the head writer or producer admitted that they use very little actual mob slang, a lot of their more colorful terms are made up or an amalgamation of old neighborhood and stuff cribbed from books they’ve read (where the slang is also made up). But this is the thing about slang: someone has to come up with the word or the phrase, use it enough that others hear it, it rings true and it takes off.
Now with Heyer her made-up slang wasn’t going to find its way into the vernacular because she was writing historical fiction, and maybe historical fiction slang requires a different protocol than making up slang for your fantasy novel or your modern crime novel -- I don’t know, but what I think is key is that the slang must seem real to the reader. It can’t read “fake.” Because the most important thing to remember about writing – and this is especially true of dialog – is that writing is not about creating reality. It is about creating fiction. And fiction and reality are not the same.
Fiction is the illusion of reality. It is better than reality. And good dialog must be better than real dialog. Real dialog is full of ums, ers, uhs, hmms… But very little of that goes a long way in fictional dialog. Mostly you just use it for pacing, to plant “beats” within your phrasing.
Real dialog is full of repetition and rambling – people take forever to get to the point, they repeat themselves, they don’t make sense, they’re not funny, they’re boring, they don’t always want to talk about The Pros. Or you get that code-talking thing that happens between people who know each other well. That verbal shorthand that is incomprehensible to outsiders trying to listen in. Real dialog is flawed. It doesn’t make for good fiction.
Good fictional dialog serves a number of purposes – all of it focused on one end: to advance the story. Good dialog should amuse, entertain, and interest. It’s smart, it’s witty. Good dialog speaks to characterization, it fills in backstory and foreshadows coming events, it can be used to plant clues, to describe setting, characters, actions that take place off stage. It’s great for helping the writer make quick transitions.
And it can be sexy, romantic, and evocative. In a romance novel, it should be all that.
Dialog is frequently referred to as “the good parts” by readers. And here you thought the good parts were all about the horizontal bounce! Your main characters do as much or more meaningful interaction through their dialog as they do through sex. More, I’m guessing.
Dialog is one of those make or break elements – the thing that separates a writer from the rest of the pack, and it’s very personal because your own voice is going to come through loud and clear in your dialog. In fact, the challenge will be in not letting your own voice overwhelm the voice of your characters – in making sure that every character has a unique voice.
Anyway, I’d asked for some general questions on writing, and a few people were kind enough to humor me.
I love writing dialog, but sometimes I get into this thing where characters start sounding alike, unless I've given one of them, say, a really distinct speech tic.
I was wondering if you have any nifty tricks you especially like for differentiating characters in speech. Are you thinking about that right at the start? Do you reserve specific words for specific characters?
It helps to give a little thought before you start writing. Like one thing I always consider is whether the character is chatty or terse – and how educated he is. This all speaks to characterization.
You have to go sparingly with the accents, tics, mannerisms – save them for special cameo appearances or a character you want to emphasize. Partly this is because it grows wearying to keep writing idiosyncratic dialog, and partly because if you’re going to give someone a Cockney accent, you better get it right – or sure as hell you’ll deeply offend the single Cockney who happened to find your book in an airport lobby and takes the time to write you an irate letter.
One thing I try to do is give characters favorite phrases or words – because we all do this in real life. And then I try and make sure his romantic opposite doesn’t use the same words or phrases unless he’s mocking the first character. It’s slightly artificial, but again – the best dialog is artificial. It just doesn’t seem artificial.
"Also, this is stupid, but I love using this interrupted speech punctuation—"
"But in Word, it gives me a front quote instead of an endquote unless I do a workaround. Do you know what I mean? Have you found any tricks to overcome this?"
No. And you’d think by now I’d have stumbled across it. I’ve just gotten so fast at the little double hit, reverse, that I don’t really notice anymore.
3. Can you give your opinion on putting dialog between descriptive actions, like when he picks up a martini glass and says, "By jove, that Josh is amazing!" And then throws the glass at the portrait of the horseman.
Or do you prefer that he picks up his martini glass.
"By Jove, that Josh is amazing!" And throws it at the portrait.
I know some people have a problem with "burying" dialog, but sometimes it seems like it should be connected to the surrounding stuff.
Just my preference, there is no one right or wrong answer here, but I usually like to bury the dialog. But I think that works best if you keep the action simple and related to the dialog. And I’m not a big fan of a lot of busyness in a scene. It there is action there, it’s gotta be there for a good reason, not just as filler.
Now, if I want to particularly emphasize an action or a piece of dialog, I’ll pull it out so that it stands on its own.
I hope I'm not abusing your expertise hospitality.
CJ, did you spill your dirty words all over my clean floor?
femme_savantwrote: So, what're your thoughts on the proper balance between description and dialogue? Is there such a thing as too little dialogue? Do you think the balance changes depending on POV (1st vs. 3rd)?
Again, I consider dialog to be “the good parts” – and from what I hear, most readers agree. Dialog is where the characters really begin to interact. When we want a relationship with someone, we don’t just want to observe them from afar, we want to interact with them, we want to talk to them. This is what readers want to see happening, characters talking – communicating.
Can you have too little dialog? Absolutely. But you can also have too much if the dialog isn’t good.
Your characters must talk with purpose, they must answer each other and not talk in tangents (or lyrical speeches), they must communicate honestly and not avoid asking (and answering) the obvious questions that real people would ask (and have to answer). Good dialog is artificial, but it’s never contrived. There’s a big difference.
: I've gone and created a main character who is deaf, and I've had to Macgyver how dialog occurs for (so far) 116 pages. When dialog has to occur by signing, lipreading, texting, or writing, one gets inventive. One hopes. What's fun is figuring it out... and hopefully not boring people to death with the logistics... pray for me.
This is great though. This requires effective use of internal dialog and the dialog of motion and gesture. I look forward to seeing how you handle this.
msmoatasked: Dialog questions...um...so, what are your thoughts on phonetic dialog?
And like a smart ass, I replied: Wotcher mean, mate? S'all good, innit?
But for me, this is the key. You’re aiming to give your dialog a flavor of the dialect, accent, regional eccentricities – you’re not actually trying to reconstruct the real thing. Because that would be tedious to read and interfere with the story flow. You don’t want that. You don’t want the reader having to sit there puzzling over pronunciation, or worse, trying to figure out what you even said.
And – this is a pet peeve of mine in Pros (don’t get me started) – I’ve heard some of these rants on “Britishisms,” and while I absolutely agree you want to get it all as right as possible, the key to brilliant dialog is NOT all about Britishisms. You could have perfect Britspeak, and your dialog could still be weak, dull, pointless – BORING.
But enough of that. Especially since it’s never been a problem for you.
And the lovely Samantha Kane wrote: I know it's basic, and you are surely already planning on it, but you should cover excessive tags. I've been seeing a lot of that lately. I'm in the middle of Man Oh Man! Kudos. I love the way your distinctive voice comes through, even in a how to book.
Dialog tags are tricky. Dialog tags are very much out of favor in contemporary fiction, but there are trends and fads in fiction like anything else, so like just about everything in writing, there is no one single right way to do it. I come from a…let’s say…expressive family. When we talk (usually all at the same time) there is much variation in tones, faces, gestures – so I’m very much aware of “nuance” in dialog, and the words “he said,” just don’t fit all and every occasion.
Not to mention the beautiful, complexity and power of the English language which gives us a multitude of perfect words to describe each and every syllable uttered. BUT like anything in writing, it’s about quality, not quantity. It’s better to use a lot fewer of these tags than you think you need – especially, especially when you are starting out.