Thursday, September 28, 2006

Accurate vs. Effective Dialogue

During the critique session of my Tuesday night class, the question came up about accurate versus effective dialogue. It’s an interesting question to me because a lot of the emphasis in beginning classes (which this is) tends to be on writing “realistic” dialogue. Instructors like myself spend a lot of class time telling students to hone their ear, read their dialogue out loud, and to generally try to mimic the cadence, colloquialisms, and character of real-life conversation.

Except that sometimes being accurate gets in the way of being effective.

Yes, it’s true that some people say, “uh, like, yeah, uh, I told him like that was so not cool,” but is it effective? Possibly. If you’re first establishing a character it might be effective to have the first sentence of their dialogue be full of ums and uhs and likes, if you want to quickly establish a particular personality. However, if you do this every time this person speaks and/or if this character has some important piece of information or plot point that needs to be conveyed, that kind of gimmick gets pretty cheap pretty quickly. This is also why I personally deplore the use of dialect. “Ach, now lassie,” etc.

When my partner was nursing our son when he was first born and up every two hours, I dutifully fetched water for her and OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon. As Mason had his repast, I translated everything Jamie (or any other Scot) had to say in that book into English, because I felt far too silly reading “in an accent.” That book is so long that we didn’t finish it before Mason got a more reasonable schedule, and Shawn said that when she went to pick up the story, she just couldn’t do it. She hadn’t realized the work I’d been doing to make the book readable, and she wasn’t up to interrupting the flow of the story to decipher some authorial attempt to add local color.

Granted, these books sold in the hundreds of thousands (and still do!), so pot and kettle and all that. But, despite being bestsellers already, I still think these books could have been improved by toning down the dialect. After all, isn’t it true that after you’ve spent some time with people who speak English in a different way, they start to sound more “normal”? So, if I were Gabaldon (other than selling much better than I do now), I’d’ve given Jamie a few chapters of Oching and Aching and ‘Tsking, and then let him speak in the cadence of the Scots without overdoing the intentional misspelling, etc.

But, dialect is only one aspect of the question of accurate vs. effective writing. Some of it is a lot less straight-forward. For instance, the author who was being critiqued in class hadn’t tried to overdo any particular language quirk (be it stammering or accented English) but instead had simply allowed a conversation to meander the way real conversation does.

The truth of the matter is that she had accurately portrayed two men trying to avoid talking about an awkward subject. However, for the purposes of fiction, what she’d written felt like stalling, and, stranger still, it felt almost contrived – as if the author were intentionally trying to be coy with the reader. This was accurate dialogue that wasn’t entirely effectively. Almost to a person, the class apologized for asking her to cut what was essentially deeply lovely conversation, because this was a story, damn it, and we wanted to get to the meat of it.

When we come across moments like this, I always think of the writing adage, “Well that might be true, but it would never fly in fiction.” Real life is a lot messier than we allow our fiction to be. We want our information, we want it now, and we don’t want a lot of interruptions before we get to the “good stuff.”

In fiction, it behooves an author to just come out with it. Even though, despite years of Nike telling us to “just do it,” most people are never so bold or clear.

Struck & White have a point: Be bold. Be clear. It may not be accurate, but it’s effective.


Mari Adkins said...

This is also why I personally deplore the use of dialect.

When I first started working on Midnight, I toyed with the idea of writing dialect. I tossed it out, though; it got in the way of the story. Besides, the way things sound is difficult to get across on paper - especially when the area I write about has a variety of dialects. Matter of fact, my husband and I were discussing those dialects the other day. It's possible to tell where a person is from within Harlan County by just listening to him speak.

Be bold. Be clear.

I can stand by that.

Erik Buchanan said...

Dialect is hard. My editor suggested I might use it for some of the minor characters in my book, and I vetoed it as too much work too late in the process.

In terms of realistic dialogue, it's all right, but I tend to use theatrical realism: if this character were on stage, how would they speak? The answer is, like a normal person but more shorter, clearer and more to the point. As you said, effective, not accurate.

Charles Dickens (on whom I have a very, very tenuous claim as a relative) wrote about dialect something along the lines of a person should be allowed to sound as they are, so long as are not vulgar.

It's not a bad way to go, as long as you have a good ear for listening to accents and a better pen for writing them down.

Kelly McCullough said...

I've used dialect, but only for minor characters and I try to cue it strongly at the front end and then trail it off, so that the readers gets a solid impression up front for that character's speech and then when they read the character later they supply much of that flavor themselves. I'm fimrly on the effective side of the fence. What I'm trying to write is believable fiction, NOT reality.

Mari Adkins said...

What I'm trying to write is believable fiction, NOT reality. I second that!!