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Elegant English: Believable dialogue

In a novel or short story, the dialogue is intended to reflect the way people speak. The more natural and realistic it sounds, the more believable it is, and the better the reader understands the character who is speaking. However, if an author were to write down a conversation exactly the way it sounded, the result would probably be very dull indeed, not to mention tedious to read.
Imagine two old ladies on a bus:
“Ee, Gladys, ‘ow are ye?”
“Oh, yer know. Ugh. Well, all right, I suppose. Ey, ‘ave you ‘erd they’re closing that shop down? Er… um… whatsitsname… Oh, you know. Next to the post office. That one.”
“Erm. Oh, ‘ang on a minute. I know the one. Pricewise. Is that the one you mean?”
“Yes. Pricewise. That’s the one. Pricewise. Well, anyway, er, I read in yesterday’s paper it’s going to close next week. Or was it the week after? I think they said next week.”
“Oh. Hum. I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? Oh, I pop in a lot. Well, a couple of times a week, maybe. Yes, about that. Well, not every week, I suppose. I only went in once last week. To get some tea bags. And a packet of biscuits.”
Not very interesting to read, is it? In real life, we use a lot of noises like ‘erm’, ‘hum’, ‘oh’, ‘ah’, ‘ugh’, and all kinds of other sounds, as well as repetition and a selection of meaningless words and phrases, just to fill the gaps in a conversation. In spoken language, this is a good thing, because gaps are awkward and silence can be boring, and the sounds themselves express some kind of basic emotion or meaning as well. In written dialogue, though, these extra additions have the opposite effect, as they contribute nothing to the conversation itself, and simply make it drag on for longer, so that is uninteresting. Therefore, good written dialogue must aim to mimic only the most useful bits of a spoken conversation. The parts that drive the action forward, or add to a character’s portrayal. So, here is a more condensed version of the two ladies’ conversation:
“Hello, Gladys. How are you?”
“All right, I suppose. By the way, have you heard they’re closing that shop down? The one next to the post office.”
“Do you mean Pricewise?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I read in yesterday’s paper that it’s going to close next week.”
“I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? I pop in a couple of times a week.”
Did you find the second version easier to read and understand? With some added detail about their appearance, expressions, gestures and setting, the conversation might begin to come alive somewhat, so that the readers feel as if they are there on the bus with the ladies.
Another important point to bear in mind when writing dialogue is the style and register. Just because something works well for Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in a novel set in the twenty-first century. Language is constantly changing, and what was considered normal a few decades (or centuries) ago, may seem quaint, or even comical now. Tolkien’s beautifully eloquent prose, for example, would be completely out of place in a fast-paced Dan Brown adventure, while modern slang would be painfully wrong in one of Georgette Heyer’s period novels.
Similarly, language usage varies from one region to another, as already discussed in a previous section, so make sure that American characters do not use specifically British expressions, for example, and vice versa.
The way language is used even changes subtly from one character to another. While one person may speak rather formally, another may use slang or dialect, yet another may have a stutter or an accent, and some may be more verbose while others are timid and economical with words. The way people speak is often a good indicator of character, and in fiction it is a useful tool for portraying people by ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. When a character speaks, he or she is showing the reader what kind of person they are, without the author having to intervene by stating what the person is like. In a well-written piece of dialogue, it may be possible to tell the characters apart just from the way they speak, as we would when listening to a spoken conversation.
When used well, conversation can be an excellent tool to help the writer with characterisation, setting and plot development. However, to avoid dialogue which sounds incongruous or out of place, take care to use the right style, always bearing in mind the period, place and type of person who is speaking. Elegant English lettering copy

2 responses »

  1. The only person I feel that really pulled this off was Irvine Welsh in his book Trainspotting. Loved this post by the way. Thanks for sharing!

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