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Sounds Like Part III…The Pros And Cons Of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

Sounds Like Part III…The Pros And Cons Of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

To wrap up this month’s discussion on how to write good dialogue I want to talk a little bit more about how to give your characters individual voices. Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that “you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.” That is what you are trying to do with your dialogue. Rarely do two people sound alike, and I don’t just mean in an auditory sense, in that their voices sound alike. I am, of course, referring to more than that, I mean their word choices, speech patterns and natural vocal rhythms.

I had the audacity last week to suggest that phonetically spelled dialogue was the by-product of a writer cutting corners. That’s a pretty harsh statement but I’m going to stand by it. Because the thing is this: writing phonetic dialogue is just the surface layer.

Are You Listening To Our Conversation?

cafe interior photo by joe mabel

Remember when I said that every writer eavesdrops? They listen to people talk at parties, at work, at coffee shops, on their cellphones, on the street. If there are people speaking, you can bet a writer is listening—they may also be silently judging the speaker but that’s neither here nor there.

Phonetic dialogue is the product of a well trained ear transcribing the sounds that the writer has heard, clipping and truncating words to visually represent the rhythm of someone’s speech. This method of writing dialogue may be effective in small doses, but I think it fails at carrying a character’s voice through an entire novel. Why? Because the way people talk, our voices, and your characters’s dialogue are more than just sounds and regional accents.

Mark Twain Wrote Dialogue Like That, It Must Work

The #1 thing phonetically spelled dialogue has going for it is immediacy. The second you read, “I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely,” you know you are reading the words of someone who is different, who is other. Phonetically spelled dialogue slaps you in the face, the words yell at you that this is DIFFERENT, did you notice it was DIFFERENT, have you caught on to the DIFFERENTNESS YET? That immediacy is not intrinsically bad, however, for a reader it’s exhausting.

  • How many readers want to spend 400 pages of your novel being punched in the face?

But Lia, My Character Isn’t American!

Literature would be pretty boring if every character was American and spoke like me—I’m from the Pacific Northwest, we’re generally considered one of the blandest North American accents. So, the question is how do you write good dialogue so that a character’s accent, dialect, culture and nationality is transmitted to the reader naturally, without literary violence?

The answer is WORDS.

  • Look at your word choices. An American might say “cellphone” or “garbage can” but someone from England is going to use words like “mobile” or “bin” instead. People in other countries use different words for things, so your characters should as well.
  • Know your colloquialisms. People use slang, and slang changes depending on where you are.
    • “I’m shinnicked with cold,” he shouted, blowing on his chapped hands, backing his great rear up to the gas heater.”I love this line from The Shipping News which uses “shinnick” to describe how cold the character feels—consequently I have a bunch of family from Ireland named Shinnick, and here it is showing up in a Newfoundland dialect.
  • People say things wrong. Maybe it’s a cliché to say English is a difficult language to learn but it’s a cliché because it’s true. I’ve worked enough in online copywriting to know that even people who are ostensibly “native English speakers” still struggle to put words together correctly. If your character doesn’t speak English as their first language or if they speak more than one language they are going to make vocabulary and syntactical mistakes.
    • Word to the wise, use syntactical mistakes judiciously. Just like phonetic spelling and overusing italics, too much broken dialogue can alienate readers as well.
  • Research your references. Have you given your characters backstory? Even if the specifics don’t all make it to the screen—and let’s be honest, they shouldn’t, backstory being one of your most important off the page writing tools—every character came from somewhere, had different life experiences, and this will influence their dialogue, both in how they same something and what they say.

    Original_Starbucks photo by PostDLFI write about my characters getting coffee, talking about coffee and asking other characters if they want coffee. This is because my characters are often either from or living in Seattle and coffee culture is just that—the culture. It is In Character for my characters to discuss coffee, so that’s what they do, because it is their frame of reference.

  • What are your character’s individual frames of reference?
  • How does their backstory influence their dialogue? Think beyond how their dialogue sounds to the words and expressions the character would use.

Writing good dialogue takes practice. Read your dialogue out loud, re-write it, talk to yourself. It isn’t crazy if it’s in your pursuit to write a better novel.

Sounds Like Part II…The Use of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

Sounds Like Part II…The Use of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

“Whyn’t you buy a san’widge? We got nice san’widges, hamburgs.”

“May soun’ funny to be so tight,” he apologized. “We got a thousan’ miles to go, an’ we don’ know if we’ll make it.”

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

ImageThe lines above, taken from The Grapes of Wrath, are an excellent example of two ways in which dialogue can be written phonetically to represent a character’s dialect: the first being the use of truncation to convey sound or rhythm (“an’ we don’ know) and the second being the way words may be misspelled or ground up to convey accent (“Whyn’t” and “san’widges”). Steinbeck is well known for this style of writing; Mark Twain and Margaret Mitchell are two other famous examples of writer’s who used it in their novels. Are we starting to see a pattern?

Put The ‘ack In The Accent

ImageI first encountered dialogue written like this when I was thirteen or fourteen, reading Buffy The Vampire fanfic, specifically Spuffy fanfic. If this doesn’t put a clear picture into your head what I mean let me elaborate: BtVS fanfic written about Spike by Americans trying so very hard to portray his cockney accent in the text. That’s on top of the excessive use of pet names, including “pet,” hackneyed, if well intentioned, attempts to use Britishism. This was, after all, before the rise of Sherlockian Britpickers. And don’t get me wrong, my meager forays into writing Buffy fanfic included some real gems of badly written dialogue too: the ubiquitously spelled “luv,” for example.

Whenever I see phonetically written dialogue, it brings me back to my tweens, a time spent reading hundreds of stories written by authors trying to transcribe language exactly as they heard it without a great deal of thought about the mechanics involved in writing good dialogue. Am I calling Steinbeck and Twain’s dialogue the work of hacks? Maybe, a little bit. At the very least the product of writer’s cutting a corner.

Many critics, and by critics I mean my University Creative Writing professors, laud Steinbeck’s portrayal of diverse lower class American groups as authentic and gritty. And in a strict sense it may be authentic, but I’m not sold on it being the best way to write gripping dialogue. Anytime a professor—because how many times has a teacher assigned Steinbeck, Twain or Mitchell in your life?–has to preface a book with the expression, “The language may be very hard to get into but keep trying. You just have to get through the first half of the book,” I think there’s something flawed about the structure of the novel.

No, I said ‘ello.”

Next week we’ll dive into the specific pros and cons of using phonetically spelled dialogue and alternative methods of writing good dialogue. But for now I want to challenge you to think about the books you’ve read, classics as well as books written more recently.

  • How many of them contain phonetically spelled dialogue?
  • When you read a book with a character with a phonetically spelled accent does it draw you deeper into the story or make it more difficult to access?
Sounds Like Part I…Tips For Writing Realistic Dialogue

Sounds Like Part I…Tips For Writing Realistic Dialogue

Conners died in the night, did you hear? And Beachdel’s taking a leave of absence. This Jonas kid shows up in my office with reports and statistics and a bunch of stuff in Sanskrit I can’t really follow, but he wanted to be part of the division and we’re short staffed.”

That does not explain why I—”

Because I need all hands on deck but I send him out there by himself, he’ll get eaten alive.” She pinned Cam to her seat with a diamond-eyed look. “But I stick him with you, I make him your responsibility, maybe you keep him alive long enough to ask for a transfer too.”

So is that what you are doing?”

That’s right.” She smiled, more like a grimace. 

© Lia Cooper 2012

Engaging, well-written dialogue is the pudding at the center of the fancy cupcake that is your story. Weird image but stick with me. Flowery language, adverbs and adjectives, are the frosting. Too much and you’re going to throw up. Plot and setting are the cake, good enough to sink your teeth into but kind of bland without the hit of delicious dialogue—the pudding at the center. (If you’ve never tasted a cupcake with pudding, I’m genuinely sorry. Link takes you to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Cupcakes my local bakery made last month.)

How Do You Write Good Dialogue?

Saving the Greeks photo by Lia 2011

I call this The Actor’s Method for writing good dialogue.

I developed this writing method from a habit I first established up when I was a high school freshman trying to memorize The Waste Land, and which I later used to memorize lines for plays I was a part of. I worked on lines in my car while I was driving. I would recite scenes to myself over and over and over again, working out different ways of saying the same thing, holding imaginary conversations with other characters to develop my character’s personality and work out how they would respond to different events.

I apply these same principles to my dialogue:

  • Read your dialogue out loud, speak it out loud. Better yet, act it out loud.
  • Give your characters distinct voices. You don’t have to be a great voice actor but try not to speak it all in a monotone. See how the way you’ve written your dialogue leaps off the page.
  • Re-read your dialogue out loud.
  • Talk to yourself. Have you heard the expression “off the page writing?” It refers to work you do for your story that may or not actually make it onto the page, this includes research, outlines, plotting, character sheets, and world building. Apply this principle to your dialogue; hold conversations between characters in different situations, whether or not it’s for a scene that appears in the story. It will help you figure out how your character speaks, their rhythm and word choices, and how they respond to different situations and other characters.

Lia’s Writing Tip: When you re-read your work, look out for places where it stops being the character speaking and becomes you, the writer, speaking too much through the character. Your characters may be literal sock puppets, but you still want them to sound In Character and authentic. You don’t want the reader to realize that they’re sock puppets.

All Writer’s Eavesdrop

You’ve probably heard a writer talk about the great conversation they overheard at Starbucks the other day. Writer’s are nosy. They eavesdrop. Why do you think we all spend so much time “writing” in coffee shops?

Photo by Renee McGurkEavesdropping can be great for developing your ear, just like acting. It exposes you to dialogue as it’s happening and in its natural habitat—e.g. aloud. But that doesn’t mean you should copy conversations you hear verbatim. 75 percent of conversations are also poorly constructed and banal, and if you copied them word for word you’d either bore or irritate your reader until they failed out of your story.

The trick to using conversations you hear to write good dialogue is to refine real life conversations to their sharpest denominator and build from there. Cut out 95 percent of the filler—the ah’s, um’s, and er’s—then cut out 90 percent of the repetition—if your character says something don’t repeat it in the action and vice versa.

  • Keep in mind that everyone lies, including your characters! They lie to themselves, they lie to each other and they lie to the reader.
  • Listen to how people lie, exaggerate and prevaricate. Listen to how they miss say something, how they mix up words or fail to convey their meaning.
  • Eavesdrop and then throw away 75 percent of what you hear. Keep the most interesting piece and build up.