‘Realistic’ dialogue

I recently read a draft of a colleague’s story. I was thoroughly enjoying the tension, the mystery, the literary craft of the tale – until, a third of the way into the story, the focal character began to speak.

He was an old man fold yorkshire manrom an English country area, and the writer had him using the idiomatic expressions of his class and county in a manner she later assured me was authentic: her great-uncles had spoken exactly that way.

Not only did the character speak entirely in dialect expressions, he also said exactly what one would expect him to say in his situation – his dialogue was made up of clichés. A fiercely independent old codger, he was refusing to go into a nursing home, and constantly made statements like ‘There’s life in me old bones yet’. My colleague reminded me that people do speak in clichés quite a lot: they’re the expressions that spring to mind because we’ve heard them so often. The dialogue, she insisted, was ‘realistic’. She’s probably right.

The problem is that, as a reader, I was jarred out of the ‘reality’ of the story the moment I began to read this character’s dialogue. My suspension of disbelief was shattered; instead of remaining immersed in the fictional world, I surfaced. For me, the tone of the story shifted abruptly from literary fiction to caricature. I can identify two reasons for this.

Firstly, we’re all accustomed to minor characters in novels, films, and (especially) TV shows, speaking entirely in clichéd colourful expressions to indicate their local, low-class status. Along with costume, it’s a short-hand way to tell the reader or viewer ‘this is all you need to know about this character – he or she is the equivalent of a Shakespearian mechanical, performing a function in the plot’. I’m sure there are real West Country people who say ‘Happen we mun’ do this or that. There are certainly real Australians – my dad among them – who say ‘Blimey Charlie’ and ‘strike a light’, but I know that as soon as I put these expressions in a character’s mouth, the Australian reader’s mind will switch from literature to television. Americans might consider their reaction to ‘Boy howdy’ or ‘Git along now’. We’re all steeped in the convention that certain geographically-linked idiomatic expressions indicate a particular kind of character not to be taken seriously.

Secondly, when a character who speaks a local dialect is intended to be taken seriously, the writer signals this, and uses various techniques to encourage the reader to look beyond the character’s surface presentation. The character usually won’t speak in clichés or catch-phrases: he or she will say things that are startling, provocative, evasive, intriguing, strange, witty, or otherwise unexpected. Sometimes, especially in genres like noir, thriller or police drama, the character speaks very little actual dialogue. Sometimes the character has a high degree of control over his or her use of language – a good example is Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, who chooses carefully whether to speak Italian, English or Venetian in any given situation, and consciously makes his accent and choice of vocabulary coarser or more refined depending on the effect he’s aiming to have on his interlocutors.

So, in literary fiction, we expect to see sophistication in the use of language, within the character’s dialogue, or at least in the interplay between dialogue and what happens around it. The fact that a character speaks in dialect or local idiom doesn’t disqualify him or her from the role of central character – but the writer needs to be aware of how cross-media conventions can undermine the desired effect of a character’s speech.

I’m reminded of a satirical scene I once saw, in which a writer’s work is being produced for television. The scene calls for a horse, so the writer is startled to see a saddled cow being led onto set. ‘It’s okay,’ the director assures the writer. ‘Horses don’t look like horses on TV; we have to use cows, cunningly painted.’ ‘What do you use for cows, then?’ ‘Two actors in a suit.’ Numerous sound effects for radio are produced by means other than the obvious: the sound of a farm gate closing can be mimicked by shutting up an ironing board, ice clinking in a glass may actually be dominoes, and kneeling on a pile of old cassette tape while squelching your hands in a bowl of yoghurt then dropping a wet towel off your shoulder creates a good approximation of a lamb being born (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00z44ff). Apparently, a microphone stuck down a geyser near Rotorua produces the sound of the inner workings of Mordor – but at least that makes sense.mordor

My point is, medium places demands on content. For fiction purposes, it’s not enough to write ‘realistic’ dialogue. As writers’ self-help books constantly remind us, in ‘real’ speech people um and ah, don’t complete their sentences, leave out key words, talk over one another, and sometimes say nothing at all, yet meaning is conveyed in a conversation through tone, gesture, facial expression and so on. These aspects of communication can only be reproduced in a limited way as words on paper. And, of course, in a piece of writing it’s not just the participants in the conversation who must understand each other: the reader needs to process the conversation in the context of the characters and their wider situation. So as writers creating characters, we must ask more of our dialogue than mere ‘realism’.

An exercise:

Look at a piece of your recent writing that features dialogue. Think about what is conveyed to the reader about each character through their speech: the words they use, the length and grammatical correctness of their sentences, the use of idiomatic expressions or slang, and so on. Does the dialogue ‘place’ the character in terms of age, gender, social background, geographical location, and so on? Does the character adjust his or her speech to suit different situations? If your character uses clichés, what effect do these have on the reader – do they build character or undermine it? Are any aspects of the dialogue working against your purposes as the writer of this story? Discuss with a writing buddy or reflective reader.

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

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Fiction Southeast

Fiction Southeast bannerI’ve just joined the staff of Fiction Southeast, an online journal dedicated to short fiction. You can check it out here. A wealth of short fiction, including an audio series, and great articles, reviews and interviews to inspire and encourage writers and readers.

To quote from the About page:

‘Fiction Southeast is an online literary journal dedicated to short fiction. The journal was founded by Editor, Chris Tusa, and Editor-at-Large, Michael Garriga. We publish fiction weekly (every Thursday) as well as an occasional essay, review, or interview on Mondays. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Aimee Bender, Donald Ray Pollock, RT Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Martone, Ron Carlson, and many others.

‘The mission of Fiction Southeast is to showcase short fiction from today’s most promising writers and to create an online literary journal that allows readers to quickly and easily access quality writing from their laptops, tablets, and cell phones. Since electronic reading devices (and to some extent laptops for that matter) make reading long pieces of writing less enjoyable, we have chosen to dedicate the journal to “short fiction,” in this case, fiction which is approximately 1500 words or less in length. Aside from limiting the stories we publish to less than 1500 words, we have also implemented a READ NOW feature for every story/article on the site (just above the article/story title) that allows the user to increase the font, export to epub format, even save in Kindle format.’

I’m looking forward to working with these guys. Please come across and take a look.

http://fictionsoutheast.com

 

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Conflicting advice

For most of my life, I’ve considered writing to be a solitary activity. When I began studying creative writing at university, I discovered the joys and frustrations of ‘critique groups’. Then my fellow-student Kathy George and I adopted each other as ‘writing buddies’. In the process of co-writing an article on writing partnerships for WQ, we interviewed fourteen other writers, who all told us they rely on fellow-writers for mutual support. Some people work one-on-one with a single trusted writing friend, others operate in groups of up to eight (though more commonly three to five).

One of the main ways writing buddies support each other is through providing feedback (sometimes called critique or constructive criticism) on work-in-progress. But here’s where it gets tricky. What if you don’t agree with your buddy’s feedback on your story?

Jenny writes a story and is very pleased with the climax, which she considers subtle and powerful. Her writing buddy Ryan, however, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Jenny explains the climax to Ryan, who suggests she provide a few more clues so the reader knows what’s happening. Jenny fears this will give too much away, risks telling rather than showing, and doesn’t demonstrate trust in the reader. She hopes Ryan’s missing of the point is just an aberration: on most of her target readers, she thinks, the climax will have the impact she’s aiming for.

How can she test this optimistic hypothesis? She sends the story to another three writing friends. Emma thinks it’s brilliant, and insists she mustn’t change a word. Viv, like Ryan, doesn’t get it, and Anthony understands what’s happened in the climax but is underwhelmed.Different ideas

Jenny tries to analyse why her buddies’ responses are so different. It doesn’t seem to be a gender thing. It’s not that they read and write different genres: each of these people appreciates and experiments with diverse writing styles. Emma has known her the longest, so perhaps Emma’s knowledge of Jenny as a person has helped her grasp and enjoy the story.

What should Jenny do next?

  1. Send the story to some more people, and keep monitoring reactions. She’s running out of writing friends, but maybe she should just find people who belong to her target market. There are potential problems here. She may end up with even more conflicting advice. Non-writers may feel ill-qualified to ‘judge’ her work, and may tell her it’s great out of politeness. Or tell her it’s not great, but be unable to articulate why not. And what if her sample ends up equally divided between thumbs-up and thumbs-down? How’s she going to feel, and what’s she going to do?
  2. Look for an expert who can tell her definitively whether the story ‘works’ or not. Unfortunately, as William Goldman once famously remarked in relation to Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ The most experienced agent or commissioning editor will sometimes completely misjudge what the readership will accept, understand, and embrace. Anyway, opportunities to access genuine expert advice on a specific story are rare and usually expensive.
  3. Send the story to market as is. After all, there must be people out there like herself and Emma, who’ll get the story straight away and love it. On the plus side, this is one way to get expert advice. If Jenny sends the story to a magazine, the editor may either publish it (yay!) or send specific guidance for a rewrite or to inform Jenny’s future efforts. Sadly, the chances of receiving such feedback from an editor nowadays are slim: it’s usually just yea or nay. If it’s nay, Jenny may have spoiled her story’s chances with this editor. And the story could be tied up for a long time waiting on that fairly unhelpful nay, unless Jenny has chosen a publication that allows simultaneous submissions.

I don’t have an answer for this one – do you? What would you do?

 

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Rewriting

Often when we talk about the “rewriting” stage of a manuscript, we’re really talking about editing and polishing. We take the material we’ve written and shuffle it around, cut some bits, expand others, add a scene, correct the punctuation, and so on. This is all very easy to do with a word processor.

But there can be great value in actually “rewriting” the manuscript: turning to a blank page (or opening a new document) and starting again from scratch. Most of us probably wouldn’t do this with a complete nrewritingovel manuscript (though some do, and I have). However, it may be the best approach to a scene, chapter, or short story that just isn’t working. Sometimes, the more you tinker with the draft, the worse it gets. You’re better off starting over.

One approach to rewriting is to change something quite fundamental, and see what happens. Here are a few examples:

The protagonist

Particularly in a short story, it’s easy to make too early and easy a decision about who the main character is. Perhaps, if the story is based on events that happened in your life, you’ve unconsciously selected the “you” character as the protagonist. If the story’s not working, try rewriting it with another character in the leading role – and/or from another character’s point of view.

The point of view

If you’ve written the story in first person, what happens if you change the point of view to limited third person, or omniscient third person? I once rewrote the draft of a novel from limited third person into a first person/quasi second person narrative stance, with the narrator an omniscient being observing and addressing the protagonist (a little like Death in The Book Thief, except that Death commentates on Liesel’s activities rather than speaking directly to her). I ended up changing back to limited third person, but the voice had changed for the better. My limited third person approach had been too limited. Once I allowed a few more insights into the character and her situation to shine through (insights I’d gained courtesy of my first person narrator), the text became much more lively and less opaque.

The framing device

Is this story being told by one character to another, late one night in a pub? Is it a dramatic monologue? Is it being narrated as a first-person reminiscence? Whatever the frame, if the story’s not working, a “reframe” might provide a useful starting point for a “rewrite”.

Mood and tone

Is this a serious piece, that might work better as a comic one? Or vice versa? Is the overall mood sombre or cheery? See what happens if you try for a mood or tone that contrasts with the one you’ve established in the first version. Can you, by taking a radically different approach, achieve more light and shade?

Voice

What about the language – is it generally formal, with longish and well-constructed sentences, or is it colloquial and chatty? What about the pace? Voice will of course depend heavily on the choices you’ve made above – protagonist, point of point, frame, mood and tone. But even if these remain the same as in the first version, can you rewrite using a very different voice? Try not to reuse phrases from the original.

The idea of rewriting from scratch is to free your creativity to give you something fresh and new, rather than feeling constrained by what’s already on the page. At the end of the day you’ll probably meld the two versions into something that’s stronger than either. And then it’s time for editing and polishing!

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The Lane of Unusual Traders

The Lane Link Check out this amazing world-building project by Brisbane publishers Tiny Owl Workshop. Writers and artists have provided a provided a map of the Lane, a prologue that explains something of the geopolitical reality of the city in which the Lane is located, and some images and ideas to spark your creativity. You are invited to bid for a shop in the Lane, by writing a flash fiction piece (by 31st July) or a short story (by 31st August) that brings your shop and its denizens to life. The publishers will select the best stories for a book, and may also produce them in charming and startling alternative formats.

I love good fantasy, and the Lane has really fired my imagination. Hope it fires yours too.

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Some treasures require digging

pirate treasure mapI’m tutoring Short Story at uni this semester, and encountering some interesting issues in the classroom. As my students read published short stories and one another’s work, I often hear the complaint that part of a story is “confusing”, that something “jars” or a particular sentence seems “random”. Closer inspection will reveal the seemingly random sentence as a vital clue to the meaning of the whole piece, so-called confusion as a question you must read on to answer, and allegedly jarring notes as moments of modulation. In other words the students protest against complexity, mystery, paradox, contradiction and multiplicity of meaning – everything that, from my point of view, makes a story compelling.

These young readers seem to expect instant understanding of a text: they want to glean everything that’s there from a quick skim. They don’t want to stop and think, or (heaven forbid) re-read anything. One student told me yesterday he likes stories to unfold like films – smoothly, consistently, with events happening one after another. I was reminded of an interview with Lee Childs, in which he said his readers don’t have to do anything but strap themselves in for the ride.

On the other hand, the same student said he also enjoys stories which force him to the dictionary to look up words he doesn’t know. So while these folks may not be exactly open to literary challenges, I’ll lever at the chinks. Hopefully they’ll have gained a new perspective by the end of semester: all the short stories for class study are complex works that reward close reading, re-reading, and contemplation.

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The Next Big Thing – I answer 10 questions

The Next Big Thing is a blog chain where writers answer ten questions about their writing, then tag other writers to do the same. I was tagged by Kathy George, prize-winning short story writer, and author of the wonderfully atmospheric Gothic novel Sargasso. You can read her post here. My answers follow.

Ocean channel between rocks 1. What is the title of your current book?

Still Water

2. Where did the idea come from?

I’m a clinical psychologist by background, and my specialist field is adolescent mental health. Over my clinical career I’ve worked with many brave, funny, ingenious, dignified, dauntless people aged 13-18, battling severe and complex mental health problems in often horrific life circumstances. My protagonist, Storm, is inspired in a general way by the privilege of working with these amazing young people.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s young adult fiction. The genre is realism, which I know is unfashionable (not a vampire lover or zombie apocalypse in sight), but I believe young people are still interested in reading about the kinds of problems and situations they encounter day to day. Love, friendship, families, sex, bullying, teachers, trying to work out where you’re headed and what you really want out of life – little details like that.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Showing my age, the only people I can think of to play Storm are Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club or Lizzy Caplan from Mean Girls. Maybe Ellen Page from Juno. Except Storm’s Australian. I’m sure there are wonderful young Australian actors out there, who’ll be ready to play Storm brilliantly when the time comes.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Sixteen year-old Storm wants to become a world-class documentary maker – but life has bigger ideas.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m working on finding an agent (do you know one?)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

The first draft took a month to actually write – it was, quite by accident, a NaNoWriMo effort – but I’d been working on the story for a year by then because I’m writing two versions of the same events: one from Storm’s perspective (Still Water) and one from the perspective of an adult character called Susan (The Child Pose). It’s taken another three months of feedback and polishing to turn Still Water into a finished manuscript. The Child Pose is slowly getting there.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I read quite a bit of YA fiction but I haven’t come across a book that’s similar to Still Water in plot. I guess it’s a coming-of-age novel. It has some similarities with Kate Constable’s Crow Country – a city girl unwillingly transplanted to a small town forms a close relationship with a boy, meets some wildlife, and comes to appreciate what lies below the surface of the place.

But no time travel. Sorry.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by questions of how people interact with places – with the natural environment, and with other people in that environment. I’m from a country town that still doesn’t possess a traffic light (let alone traffic). I think small towns in fiction are manageable microcosms, providing insights into big questions about environmental, family and community responsibilities.

I started out focusing on the adult character, Susan. But in the course of writing The Child Pose, Storm really got under my skin. From the start I found her funnier, more complex, and yet easier to relate to, than any of the adult characters. Maybe I just like teenagers better than adults. As soon as I started writing Storm’s diary, in first person, the story flowed out. It reminded me of interviewing: all I was doing was writing down Storm’s words. I still feel a sense of responsibility to do justice to her story, as if she were a real person.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The town of Stillwater, where the novel is set, is a mix of places from up and down the Queensland and New South Wales coasts, with an occasional touch of Tasmania, South Australia, and Papua New Guinea thrown in. So you might recognise a beloved spot from real life, slipped into the fiction.

And Storm’s bloke Nathan is – in the words of my test readers – “a spunk and a sweetie”. If he were real, and I were several decades younger, I’d almost want to sail away with him myself.

I would now like to introduce you to two lovely Brisbane writers, who will be posting their answers to the 10 questions in a week’s time.

Kate Zahnleiter holds a Masters degree in creative writing. In 2011 she was the recipient of the QUT Postgraduate Writing Prize, and her short fiction has been published in One Book, Many Brisbanes; Rex and Review of Australian Fiction. She is currently working on her first novel, Fitting in with Normal People, which was recently accepted into the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program.

Kim Douglas has completed a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing at QUT, and plans to articulate to Masters. She is working on her first novel, The Black Dog in Greek, and has just started blogging as a strategy to manage writer’s block.

If you have a blog and are working on a book (or have recently completed/published one), you may like to participate in The Next Big Thing yourself. Contact me, Kate or Kim!

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