Wednesday, April 27, 2011

He says, she says... Part One

Barbara here, thinking about dialogue. Next weekend I am giving a workshop as part of the Thousand Islands Writers’ Festival. The title of the workshop is “How to write effective dialogue”, and it is supposed to occupy three hours. At first I quailed. Three hours talking about how to talk? I can spin out a tale with the best of them, but three hours is a lot of minutes to fill. With what?

I know most of the obvious rules…

  • Don’t, uh… don’t write speech that - I mean write speech that ah, sounds like speech but doesn’t, you know? Make it snappy.

  • Dinna try t’ recreate dialect ‘n’ accents wit’ daft spellings. A wee word or two will do.

  • Don’t make your characters hiss and snap, or snarl. He said, she said works fine.

  • Eschew formal sentence structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and pedantic grammar, unless of course your character is a fussy English prof. Contractions rule.

  • Don’t have the wife tell the husband how long they’ve been married and what the names of their three kids are. He ought to know.

I even have some suggestions for tuning the ear…

  • Eavesdrop in coffee shops, on buses, in grocery lines. Not only will you hear how different age groups and types of people speak, but you’ll get some great story ideas too. What stirs them up, what matters to them. It’s amazing what snippets of people’s lives you overhear.

  • Hang out where your characters would. Teenagers in the mall after school, business men in the hotel bars, young mothers in the park, etc. Listen to how they talk and what they talk about. The rhythm, the inflection, the choice of words, the grammar and the slang. Used sparingly, all of these evoke both time and place.

  • Find real people of the age and background you are writing about, and pay attention. You can invite your ten year-old niece out for ice cream, or visit your eighty year-old aunt. If you have neither, borrow someone else’s.

  • Use the internet as a resource for slang, regionalisms and period language. There are dictionaries or lists for just about every kind of dialect.

  • And lastly, You Tube is a godsend. Check out The Worldwide Accent Project. Type in any kind of speech you want, such as Scottish Accents, and listen to the tapes.

This ought to get me to the first break, especially with a writing assignment thrown in. On my next blog, I’ll talk about framing the words you choose, and how to use dialogue to influence pacing, conflict, and drama. And I’ll report on whether three hours was long enough.


Rick Blechta said...

EXCELLENT post, Barbara. Thanks for the timely reminders!

Hannah Dennison said...

Great post Barbara!