Dialogue For The Reader’s Ear
One of the most important technical elements of storytelling is dialogue. It’s not just how your characters communicate with each other; along with physical actions, including body language (which I’ll touch on in an upcoming post) it’s how your characters communicate with the reader.
Dialogue is also a critical component in the pacing of your story. When dialogue matches action in its pace, it forms a harmony; when the two are at odds, on the other hand, that disharmony is felt by the reader. That sensation of disharmony can leave your work feeling subtly ‘off’, and that turns the reader off.
More than pacing, though, more than communication, your dialogue should deliver immersion. If your dialogue is both sparklingly witty and, at the same time, rings true with verisimilitude — and all other things being equal — your reader ceases to be aware of reading a story. The page fades from the mind, the barrier between reader and story simply vanishes. And that’s when you’ve got ‘em.
Are there “tricks” to it? Good news/bad news time.
Good news: Yes, there are techniques you can employ with your dialogue to nudge it toward that magical balance between better-than-life and true-to-life. Bad news: You’re going to have to discover the ones that work best for you. You can be shown those that work best for others, but the ones that work best for you are going to be the results of trial, error, more trial, and more error.
With that said, trying out the devices of others can sometimes be instrumental in adapting and refining tried and true techniques that you might then, in the course of time and practice, make your own.
Let’s begin with the technique of regional accent. Just as impersonators have an ear for regional accents, so can you develop such an ear. The strongest example I can recall of this technique is employed by Mark Twain throughout many of his novels. (A fact which has brought not a little scorn on the author, which he would no doubt return in kind upon his critics.)
Unfortunately, while the ear for dialect and the corollary talent for transcribing dialect into text can be learned, it can’t be taught. On the other hand, advice can be given on how best to go about learning:
Simply, watch those films which feature characters who speak accented English. To learn to identify and emulate an Australian accent, for example, watch Crocodile Dundee or The Road Warrior. To learn to identify and emulate a Scottish accent, as another example, watch Series 8 of Doctor Who, paying particular attention to the voice of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor.
An Australian accent written into dialogue, for example, might look like this:
“Nowbody ilse out eah. Jest me’n’ the snikes… plyin’ maw-jung. Tykin’ tea.”
If you read that aloud, just as it’s written, you’ll be speaking with an Australian accent. There’s just one problem, and you’ve no doubt already spotted it: While that line was written in an Australian accent, it’s damned near indecipherable.
This is why I suggest that, while you have the accent in your head as you write for whichever character in your story has one, don’t fully transcribe the accent. Keep it subtle by using what I call “markers.” Markers are simply accented words that will evoke the accent in your reader’s mind without requiring you to fully transcribe the dialect or worse, require your reader to wade through it.
For example, we might use just a few words of the above line as our marker:
“Nobody out here. Just me’n’ the snikes, playin’ mahjong, takin’ tea.”
In short, I have 2 simple rules for my own dialogue, where regional accents are concerned:
1. Get it right. If I hear or read one more Scots’ brogue passed off as an Irish accent, dare’ll be marders.
2. Don’t overdo it. Don’t ask your readers to be translators — remember, they’ve paid you, you haven’t paid them.
Idiosyncratic dialogue, as with accented dialogue, is best kept subtle. What do I mean by ‘idiosyncratic’? I mean, in short, ‘natural sounding’. We all, when we speak naturally, have false starts, ‘ummm’s, ‘uhhh’s, and other phrases which we use quite unthinkingly. “Y’know?” “Know what I mean?” “Right?”
These phrases, in written dialogue, can lend authenticity and enhance immersion — but only up to a point. Repeated too frequently, they only serve to make your characters sound like idiots — which is incredibly realistic, because most of us are, in fact idiots — but that much verisimilitude is grating on the reader’s mental ear.
Rhythm and Pacing
Remember when I mentioned how important the pacing of dialogue is? Here we are again, back at the pacing question. Pacing isn’t just important to the flow of your story, though — it’s also a tool of characterization.
When you have a character who is a ‘big talker’, it can affect the way your reader interprets the character overall, whether as an intellectual or simply a windbag. On the other hand, a character whose lines are terse and to-the-point may come across as anything from an action-oriented character to a haughty and arrogant type.
Dialogue between those two extremes in character most usually plays out with one or the other, usually the terse one, resonating as the more dominant character — that is, of course, merely the baseline impression; the actual content of such dialogue could easily turn that impression on its ear, as could the body language depicted in concert with the dialogue.
When it comes to attribution, remember one basic rule. Dialogue stays with the character, each character gets his or her own line via hard return. It isn’t always necessary to put, for example, “Jack said” after everything Jack says. This is the reason for introducing subtle accent markers and idiosyncrasies into your characters’ respective speech patterns.
“Hey, Marce?” Jack rifled through the cutlery drawer. “Um, y’all got any forks?”
Marcy muttered as she got up from the couch, then spoke up. “You gon’ have to wash one, hun!”
“I be in there in a while if you wanna wait.”
“Naw, I got it.”
In the above example, attribution isn’t even required for the last two lines, because the previous lines established dialect, idiosyncrasy, and pacing. I personally avoid “said” as much as possible in attribution. Instead, I like to keep the character who is speaking in focus for his or her dialogue by attributing his or her name to an attached action, as you saw Marcy do on the second line of the above example.
In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate that the above techniques are simply techniques which I have found work for me; I hope that you discover something in them that will work for you, too. Please feel free to reach out to me with comments or questions.
Thanks for reading. Do good work, and be good to yourselves and each other.