Instalment 4 of the now famously glorious dialogue mini series
A few of us have been wrestling with the appropriate tone of voice for our fiction characters. Getting it right is tricky. My father often recounts an anecdote from our childhood: he was once telling my sister a story at bedtime, and my sister, who was only a toddler at the time, famously told him off for “talking ‘written’”. This was a good 40 years ago and he’s still raw at the accusation that his story-telling came across as stifled.
A famous Roman saying (and by this I mean the city of Rome, Italy, as opposed to the war loving ancient Rome) goes something like this: Speak like you eat! (Parla come magni!) Using a large spoonful of poetic freedom, this translates into Cut the pompous formality and get down to earth when you speak, you fool. It’s a saying that expects simplicity. No rhetorical distractions, please, or the real meaning of our words will be lost.
I’m especially interested in children and young people’s style of dialogue in fiction. In my attempt to capture contemporary speech between grown-ups and children, I set myself the task of eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations…Stop staring at my blog with a fake air of outrage! I know you’ve done it yourself! It’s all in the name of literature, isn’t it?
I’m not sure I’ve learned much from the experience though, but I thought of sharing it here none the less, for comedy purposes if anything else.
Imagine the scene: we are in the café of our local swimming baths. A thirty something dad sits with his young child (not much older than 4, I’d say). They are having a bite after a nice swim.
Dad: Did you enjoy that, mate?
Child: Nods – (note to myself: no actual response from the child.)
Dad: Eat up, mate.
Child: Again no response (ah-ha! First rule of writing children’s dialogues – kids don’t always say much, or at all).
Dad: No, you don’t need any salt on that, mate.
Child: (some sort of mumbled protest).
Dad: You don’t need salt on anything, really, mate (Goodness. You actually do need a little bit of salt every now and again).
Child: (Again nothing, except for fixing his stare on his dad’s drink – a fancy protein and whey milkshake that looks profoundly interesting and…forbidden).
Dad: Wait, mate! Let me check whether there’s anything in here that you can’t have. Wait, I said, mate. Let me read the ingredients…blah blah blah, protein, blah, whey, blah blah, salt, blah. OK, mate, you can have a tiny drink. There.
Child: (Pulls hard).
Dad: Stop, mate! Just a sip, I said, mate…
By the end of the exercise in eavesdropping in the name of literature I was beginning to feel slightly nauseous. Mate, mate, blah, blah, blah, mate, mate, mate, mate, blah, blah, blah. Plus the mate in question managed to utter absolutely NOTHING during the entire length of the exercise.
My conclusion? Forget empirical research and take the advice of real children books writers and publishers, blogged about so frequently that you’ll feel it’s Christmas again when Google search results pop up in double figures on your screen. Here’s a summary of the 7 most sensible pieces of advice I dug up:
1. Read a lot of books, and a lot of children books.
2. No slang if you’re not sure about it.
3. It’s OK to start a sentence and break it off half way through for no apparent reason; people do that all the time. But don’t push it either: it gets tiring.
4. Stopping and starting dialogues works if you want to create a real sense of indecision, uncertainty, apprehension, fear, shyness.
5. Don’t always create agreement between characters – dialogue will be boring. Children (in fact, adults too) disagree with each other more often than not; they will interject; go off a tangent; start talking with somebody else; get back to a previous conversation uninvited; change the subject and change it again.
6. Don’t try to provide too much description through your dialogue: use it to move the story along faster.
7. Last but not least, restrain from using the word “mate” too many times. In fact, do not use at all. Unless of course your character is a hate figure. In that case, use “mate” at the end of each sentence.
What about the most nonsensical pieces of advice?
- Spend a lot of time with children (WHAT? Do you want to go to jail? Those working within a criminal justice environment will want assurances that this is innocent, please!) If you do eavesdrop into children’s conversations, please do it responsibly!
- Read out your dialogue aloud. If it flows, you’ll know it’s right (AGAIN, WHAT? This presumes that everybody will be reading in as objectively a way as possible, which some do. I don’t. I read my own work aloud and make it sound soooo much better than it is. I’m great at giving it the tone I want it to have – what would be the fun in it otherwise? But I can see how this may work for the honest contingent of writers out there. Good for you, I say, and hurrah for objectivity!
- More often than not use “he said” or “she said” – readers will glide over it. (OK, I like the way you are thinking, but too many “he said” can be unimaginative and boring. Take a lesson from Dave Eggers or Patricia Cornwell – not a lot of “he said”, “she said” there.
Have you conducted any interesting or funny exercises in the name of literature recently? As always, I will be delighted to hear from you. And don’t forget to tune into my next post: an exclusive insight into homelessness by choice, poetry and blogging.