You Don’t Talk So Good

talking“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate that we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for the supervisor.) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching leaping toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to capture is the perfect locution of the English professor, as formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit/creative writing background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a high school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – it ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hotspots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that “produced” them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in a book is to say less, implant a red herring, or mean more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented teacher you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping that even if readers think I “talk funny,” they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation. I have to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

 

Uncovering Shakespeare

I love musical covers—where one artist performs, and often changes, another artist’s song.  I’ve taken a lot of gentle teasing over the years because of this, because many people see covers as a form of copying someone else, rather than an original work.  But for me, it’s always been about interpretation—it’s fascinating for me to see how someone can hear a song, internalize it, and fundamentally change it while still leaving it enough like the original that it’s recognizable.  For someone who’s always been fascinated by the creative process, the act of interpretation and working within the boundaries that entails is just as interesting as the act of creation.

My love of cover versions isn’t limited to music.  I find literary covers to be endlessly amusing.  Unlike musical covers, their literary equivalents are very often humorous—or downright farcical.  Though it’s also a common trope to retell a famous story from a new perspective, or create an unofficial prequel or sequel.

Of late, I’ve become enamored of several rather interesting covers of stories by William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a prime target for these literary interpretations.  I’m sure this stems from Shakespeare’s centuries-old theater tradition—a medium which practically revolves around interpretation.  My reading list, over the past months has a generous dose of the bard, done with irreverent tribute.  I thought I’d share a few fun ones with you.

The first entry in this list is rather traditional in its inspiration.  William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, was born when the author attended a modern interpretation of The Merry Wives of Windsor the same weekend he watched the Star Wars Trilogy for the umpteenth time.  There are actually three books, Star Wars, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return (this last one has yet to be released), and each of the three translates the movie not only into Shakespearean language, but also into a staged play format.  Perhaps these books are nothing more than a mash-up, but there’s something delightfully silly about hearing sci-fi speak retrograded to the times of Romeo and Juliet.  Literature it’s not, but for those steeped in Star Wars mythology it’s a delightful way to waste time.

Next on the list is a pair of books by perennial farcissist, Christopher Moore. Fool is the play King Lear retold from the point of view of the last character listed in the dramatis personae, the fool.  Moore takes this minor character from the original play, and creates, not a power behind the throne, but a character so grounded in absurdity that he is able to remain sane while those around him dissolve into madness.  It’s not Moore’s best book, by any stretch of imagination, but for someone whose list of works includes A Dirty Job, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, saying this one isn’t the best is not a knock.  The sequel, The Serpent of Venice (which I have only just begun to read) is a little more ambitious in its interpretation.  Not only does it use the same fool from King Lear, but amalgamates plot elements from Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

The last entry is perhaps the one that takes the most liberties with Shakespeare, but also in an odd way stays the most true to the source material. To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North is a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, that started life as a Kickstarter project. The ambitious, 700+ page paperback, lets you make the decisions as to how Hamlet turns out. North makes little to no effort to stay true to the language of Shakespeare, but does a whimsical and wonderful job of providing a new voice through which he narrates the farcical plot twists that litter the book. To be sure, with the correct choices, you can read the book with the same plot and timeline as Shakespeare’s text—although to do so you’ll have to put up with a little goading and mocking by the narrator. But it’s so much more fun to read the story as another character—hint: if you choose to play the king the book is very funny, but only 3-6 pages long. The magic of this book is uncovered if you are adventurous enough to play Ophelia. With Ophelia you have a bevy of increasingly non-traditional storyline—including spurning Hamlet, and pursuing a science-post-doc.

I know there are those of you who are horrified by all these recommendations that take extreme license with the immortal words of the bard, but for me who can’t seem to get enough cover versions, this variety is just the right spice for my summer reading.