A few readers recently have been kind enough to make positive comments about the use of dialogue in Song of the Sea God – for which I thank them very much. I decided I would share a few thoughts about writing dialogue in fiction in the hope it might stimulate a discussion.
These points are just a few things which strike me about the art of writing conversation in novels – I’m sure you will have your own, and please do add them in the comments section at the bottom so it can become a resource for people visiting this post.
Here’s what helps me when I’m writing dialogue.
First I listen. I ear-wig on people’s conversations. It’s probably a bad habit but, you know, if that’s my worst then I’m doing ok. Whenever I’m sitting at a coffee-shop or on the bus, or in the pub I’m picking up scraps of dialogue, the things people say, the way people say them. If there’s an interesting exchange I might even write it down later in the notebook I carry with me and, who knows, it may pop up again in a story or novel.
As well as noticing what people say I notice how they say it, the little quirks of spoken English – have you noticed, for example, how often people begin a sentence: ‘Yeah, no…’ I try to reflect the way people speak, the natural cadences they employ.
Not too real
I remember too though that real speech is messy. When I was an undergraduate, studying English lit, I did some linguistics and, in those tutorials, came across real conversations, carefully and accurately transcribed. People talk over each other, trail off half way through what they’re saying, um and err. Written out exactly how it was said it looks odd and wrong and hard to read. The fact is, when you are writing you don’t want real speech – you want believable speech, and that’s a different thing.
Accent can be agony for the reader when it is done badly. If you want to see an accent done fabulously well in fiction you need look no further than Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. His story of young Edinburgh based drug-users is rendered entirely in a Scottish dialect which feels real and vital and powerful, it’s a triumph. If you want to see accent done not so well, take a look at some of the other British regional accents Welsh attempts in other books – they are perhaps not as believable.
I think there’s a lesson in that. If you can inhabit an accent like your own skin, because it is yours or because you are a fabulous mimic then go for it.
But otherwise beware!
Accent done badly in dialogue can be like nails on a blackboard. It can jar the reader out of the story and make what you write seem clunky and poorly executed. It can even be a cue to mirth – and no writer wants people laughing at their book in the wrong places!
I certainly favour giving a flavour of accent and in the words and construction I use – but it takes a brave man to go the full Trainspotting.
What’s the point?
Before I write dialogue in a story I ask myself a question: what I am I using it for? Letting characters burble away in your fiction to no particular end is not to be encouraged. Neither is having them spout lumps of clumsy plot exposition.
I think you have to leave your characters room to live through their speech, but not overindulge their jokes or banter at the expense of moving things on. Like so much else with writing fiction, this is a balancing act to be made on the basis of taste and experience.
So there we go – my thoughts on writing dialogue – what are yours?
See what you think of my dialogue, and indeed the rest of what I do, in my book Song of the Sea God.