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.

 

Talk Talk

people_talkingBaby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk. Rant, whisper, inform. Stutter, harangue, order. Insult, complain, gossip. Coo. Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night. Talk talk.

If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, just the way I say it.

So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know? Oof, that’s a terrible take.

I guess I have to clean up my speech for the written page because that sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.

My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like mine, as if my quirky phrasing had been loaned to my characters. Too many words, correct grammar, a spiraling conversation that takes the reader way out of the story. I talk like that too, monologues that explain the history of my world before I get to the point, detracting from the topic. The delete button is my most trusted tool when I write dialogue, and passages are much improved when I wield it with vigor.

As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can apply to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses and motive becomes apparent.

I also read, as any writer does. A character pulls down the mask on his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.

[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]

The dialogue is minimal but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.

Applying everything I know intellectually about dialogue to my writing demands a lot of time, introspection, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck that I have to haul to the scrap heap. But I’m proud of my successes. In The Tree House Mother, two teenage girls park on a hill and talk their hearts out in a crucial scene, the chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. At the end of the conversation both girls find that words can only tell part of their story given that even the meaning of words thought to be mutually clear is enriched by one’s experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up in tears. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.

Often it’s not what’s said but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires me to trust my readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can serviceably describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience grasps her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue; it’s hard to find a better mentor.

My most recent WIP is Where Did Mama Go? It takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers, so a great deal of the story is dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or mysterious, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s raw, visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by certain scenes. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.

I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth. Talk talk, just say something worth reading.

Be well, friend.