Sunday, June 27, 2021

Some Dialogue Don’ts

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

The dialogue in your fiction is critical. It can make or break a story.

When evaluating a novel or short story, dialogue is one of the first things agents and contest judges look at. And clunky dialogue is also an instant turnoff for readers. 

It's critical to make your fictional conversations sound natural and authentic, like those people would actually speak, instead of in complete, grammatically correct sentences, but beware of too closely imitating actual conversation.

Real-life conversation is no excuse for confusing, irritating, distracting, offensive, or boring dialogue coming out of your fiction characters’ mouths.

For example, beware of frustrating or annoying your readers by trying to reproduce regional dialects exactly as they sound.

Also, be cautious about using the very latest slang expressions, which could backfire on you and end up dating your story within a year or two. That would not be cool! (Pun intended.)

And overloading dialogue with in-your-face profanities can lose you readers.

And finally, please leave out all that boring yadda-yadda, blah-blah, filler stuff!

Don’t mangle characters’ speech.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to reproduce regional speech patterns phonetically. As Jack Bickham says, “There was a time, not so long ago, when fiction writers strove for authenticity in some of their stories by attempting to imitate regional and ethnic dialects and pronunciations by purposely misspelling words in their dialogue. Today such practices have fallen into disfavor.”

Why? Because it’s distracting and irritating. Not only that, it runs the risk of obscuring your intended meaning. All of which will result in taking your reader out of your story – the exact opposite effect you’re going for. Also, you could easily end up offending people from that region if you depict their everyday casual language as a kind of inferior, laughable sublanguage.

Here’s an example of what I mean, from an older story about slaves and the Civil War. The passage was narrated by a slave:

“So dey jump on dey horses and gallop ’way. An’ we ain’t see’d dem since. Dey friends say dey be kilt in one o’ de firs’ battles o’ de war. Dat be good lesson fo’ we, shure ‘nuf! Black folk ain’t gonna go off ta fight in a war. Life be tuff enuf here wid’ Massa an’ his whip, widout uder buckra be shootin’ at de menfolk an’ killin’ ‘em dead.”

And it went on like that for pages! Ouch!

So these days, phonetic spelling, misspelling words to show different pronunciations, the overuse of apostrophes to indicate missing letters (unpronounced sounds), and other deviations from standard North American speech are frowned upon by most editors, agents, and discerning readers, and may earn a rejection for your otherwise compelling story.

An occasional elision (dropped sound, indicated by an apostrophe) and plenty of regular contractions, with the odd regional word or expression thrown in, is usually enough to get your regional flavor across to your readers.

Don’t try to keep up with the very latest slang expressions.

Many new authors try to appeal to their audience by using the latest slang expressions, especially in YA fiction. This is usually a mistake. The language is changing so fast, especially fad expressions, that what’s trendy or “in” today may be already dated by the time your short story or novel sees the light of day. The moral? Be careful with using cutting-edge street talk or just-coined slang expressions. It’s usually best to stick to slang expressions that have been around for at least a few years.

Don’t overdo the profanities.

Another area where beginning writers mess up is in replicating every F-word in real life on their page, leaving many readers wincing. Profanities and obscenities can often slide by in real life, depending on the situation, but they usually jump out at us on the printed page, so use them judiciously, to get the general flavor, rather than on every line.

As Jack Bickham says, “Dirty talk often looks dirtier on the page than it actually is.” So save the worst of your swear words for those story situations where a strong curse word is really needed to convey the emotion.Also, consider your genre. Readers of cozy mysteries, for example, are mostly women aged 60 and up, so best to use less graphic language in those stories. The odd “Damn!” or “Crap!” or "sheesh" or "jeez" or 
friggin/frickin' will usually suffice. Or He told them to eff off or something like He let loose a string of profanities.

Don’t reproduce actual conversations verbatim.

By this I mean all the uhs and ums and ers and you knows and How are you? I’m fine, and you? Not to mention introducing people, chitchat about the weather, and other empty social niceties that lead up to (or follow) the real meat of the conversation. That’s a sure-fire recipe for putting your readers to sleep! And they won’t be eager to pick up your book again when they wake up.

As Ingermanson and Economy say, “Dialogue is war!” You need tension on every page, including in your dialogue. So if it doesn’t drive the story forward, add conflict or tension, or contribute to character development, take it out.

So, oddball spelling, attempts at reproducing regional dialects phonetically, and heavy use of profanities all risk offending someone, whether it’s a member of a minority or someone who doesn’t like swearing. And the latest slang expressions may soon appear outdated and ridiculous. And really, empty blah blah is boring, isn’t it? So be wary of reproducing characters’ dialogue exactly as it sounds in real life—it could backfire on you.

What do you think? As a reader, how do you feel about the attempted reproduction of regional dialects in fiction? As a writer, how do you show the accent and expressions of a specific region? And how do you research expressions for a region you’ve never lived in or visited? Also how do you feel about stories peppered with obscenities? Are you okay with it, or do you find yourself wincing inwardly?

For more info on writing dialogue, see my other blog posts, "Amp up That Dialogue!" and "How to Write Dialogue Accurately."

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.

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