Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dialogue Only Has to Be True to the World of Your Novel

One of the more interesting parts of writing a novel is how much you come to realize how very different dialogue is than actual human speech.

I've tackled this on the blog before, and it was driven home for me when I was on a panel this past Friday at the Backspace Writers Conference.

There was a question about how much modern slang to incorporate into your novel. I personally wrote novels that were set from 2010-2013 (Um. I think those were the years. Where's my series bible again?), and I very strenuously avoided any hint of modern slang.

Why? Because slang changes. It can date your book. You can't predict how it will evolve.

But more importantly, when you are writing dialogue in your novel, you are not beholden to the real world. You don't have to answer to it. You are beholden only to the world of your novel.

No child who has ever lived has spoken like Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. He uses words I have to look up in the dictionary. And yet no one would ever mistake Calvin for an adult. Within the world of Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin still sounds like a kid. It's believable in that world.

You have tremendous leeway as an author to set the ground rules for dialogue and to let your characters speak how they speak.

Don't ever try to imitate real life, because real life transcribed dialogue doesn't translate. Even during my answer on the panel, I said "The the the..." in quick succesion. I doubt anyone noticed because it was within the flow of conversation and I wasn't otherwise struggling for words. But put that on the page and I would sound like I was stuttering and grasping for confidence. It wouldn't translate in the same way.

Cast away real life when you're writing your dialogue. Instead, be true to the world of your novel. As long as it makes sense in your world, your reader will find it believable.

Art: The Discussion by Harry Wilson Watrous


Charli Armstrong said...

I needed this...

erin said...

thank you for this. the tension between writing like a teenager and writing as a teenager has been haunting my work.

Valentíne Ogunaka said...

Thanks Nathan... I always thought my readers would thìnk "What! This can't happen." Now i can understand why as a wrìter i have to leverage to spin my reader.

K.E. Skedgell said...

I write historical fantasy set in 15th century Eastern Europe. Yeah. So it goes without saying, I cannot write the way they talked back then, even if I knew how they talked back then. I need to keep watchful over modern slang and speech, not because of dating the work, but because the characters would never had said such things. A writer needs to make dialogue read as if it is normal speech without actually writing real speech. The way I hear people talk is not something I want to see in the written word.

abc said...

Cool. What is your best advice for making sure each character has their own voice? I think I struggle with this, especially when writing a bunch of teenagers. But I also don't want it to be too obvious.

Shawn said...

David Mamet might take issue with this thesis.

Jerome David Salinger spun in his grave.

In writing, as in painting, there are impressionists and there are photorealists.

Every novel should happen in a specific place at a specific time. That also fixes the parameters of diction and slang within completely acceptable brackets.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm not sure I understand what you mean. Which thesis are you disagreeing with?

Kimyatta Walker said...

Fantastic. I love it. I appreciate that...because sometimes I see stuff...and I've heard someone say...about other works "People don't talk like that"...and I always think that they do in whatever world is created in that book! Thanks for the confirmation!

B.C. Brown said...

I often hear "People don't talk like that!" as well. My response is always "In my world, they do."

I agree that being true to the voice of your characters is necessary. Also that having a character who is illiterate rattle off scientific postulation might be a little bit of a stretch for the reader. However it is important to remain true to the voice of the work, not some antiquated notion of what the voice should be.

All the best and BREAK A PEN!
BC Brown - Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy
"Because Weird is Good."

Mike C. said...

I'm not sure I understand what you mean here. I can see why authors wouldn't want their dialogue to read like a court transcript or be peppered with the "ums," "ahs" and stuttering that interrupt everyday conversation, but why avoid slang? Holden Caulfield uses slang. Huck Finn uses slang. Any number of characters from any number of terrific novels use slang. I appreciate when characters use language that is authentic to the setting of the novel.

And why not attempt to capture real life through dialogue? Doesn't authentic-sounding dialogue strengthen a story?

Nathan Bransford said...

Mike C-

"Authentic to the world of the novel" - that's what I'm saying actually.

Saturday Sequins said...

Nathan, I can't tell you how relieved I am to read this!

I have a background as a transcriptionist, and after five years of listening to other people speak and trying to translate it into readable English, I agree completely.

Oh, the stories I could tell you. Oh, the jumbled grammar and run-on sentences and unintentionally made up words. If I put those in a novel, people would throw it like a Frisbee!

Bruce Bonafede said...

I don't think the use of slang is a weakness in and of itself, so I'd say Twain and Salinger are safe. But it's a risk: doesn't their dialog keyed to the time of those books sound quaint? It doesn't sound natural & only "works" because it is saved by the other elements of the books. As to Mamet, I wouldn't use him as an example. Dialog in a play is not the same as dialog in a novel.

James said...

My response is from my POV as reader.

I find dialogue in a novel to be problematic.

Seems writers are always being told "Show, Don't Tell" (which is solid advice), but one problem that occurs is exposition often gets shoved into the mouths of characters -- they end up saying things that they would never say or already know.

I see a lot of very good and Best Selling authors resort to this.

One huge tip off is any time you see "As you know..." "I've told you before..."

It often comes off as if the author is talking down to the reader, rather than two characters speaking.

As a reader, I'd actually prefer to be told some information through a character's eyes in prose if the alternative is through dialogue, with no other purpose than informing the reader.

Made up example:

"As you know, the arc-reactor you have welded to your chest acts like a magnet to keep shards of shrapnel from piercing your heart," said Pepper Potts.

You may laugh -- but I see this sort of exposition dumping in dialogue a LOT! And it drives me nuts.

"No shit. I built the thing," said Tony.
"Well. Then, you know."
Tony points to himself. "Brilliant multibillionaire genius scientist. Yeah--I know."

My personal taste is that you waste good, fun dialogue doing exposition dumps. If you can't get around it any other way, it is better as prose imho. A recap through Tony's eyes about what/why there is a glowing reactor in his chest would be better.

I guess, I responded to this article mainly because I think you can take dialogue one step further. It needs to be more than true to the world of your novel -- first and foremost it needs to be true to your character.

wendy said...

Dialogue that sings and reveals a unique character is probably the hardest thing to create in a novel.Interesting and helpful advice. Thank you, Nathan :)

Mira said...

Cool picture, and great post. Spot on, Nathan.

I enjoy Meg Cabot, but she has really dated herself by using slang, as well as culture references that are out of date. I wish people would avoid that - I understand it makes a book relevant and accessible, but only for a limited time. And as you point out, Nathan, a book can create it's own culture, including relevant dialogue.

Although - one pretty cool thing with e-books, you could actually go back and re-write the book with updated slang and cultural references. Amazon would send a notice to all buyers that the book was updated.

That's kind of a cool addition that a new technology brings to books, now that I think of it. :)

T. Z. Wallace said...

This is really timely for me, because I am working on a short story that is set in rural Oklahoma, with the narrator being 6years old at the time of the events. Writing dialect, writing it in a child's voice, took some time and effort. Heck, I still don't know if I pulled it off, but she sounds like she does in my head...I guess that means that it makes sense for the world I created for her. Reading this quelled my fears a bit. Thanks!

Sarah Hipple said...

I love that you use Calvin as your example!

And one little piece of timeless slang: "Cool." I seriously cannot believe how well this word has aged.

I'm setting a story in the 1950s, and I feel like it'd be a lot of fun to throw in a few "Daddios" or whatever, but somehow I can't quite bring myself to do it. 50s slang sounds a little too ridiculous to me. So I can just imagine how our slang will sound in a few years.

The Ginger said...

A great example of dialogue that lives within the novel is A Clockwork Orange. Burgess even comments on the odd slang that is used by Alex towards the end. The girlfriend of one of Alex's former gang members asks why Alex is talking so funny. It is the slang of youth, but is only the slang of the youth in A Clockwork Orange. The time period is supposed to be futuristic compared to the 60's, yet I doubt that we will see a time when paper mache rocking penises will be considered art (though I thought it was pretty cool idea) or chemically altered milk that is dispensed out of a statue's breasts. And on and on.
Here is an exert from the book:
“This must be a real horrorshow film if you're so keen on my viddying it.”
Horrorshow means more or less "good". Kind of like when someone says something is "bad ass". And viddying means "watching" or "viewing". Most of the slang in the book can be interpreted by the context.

Nathan, you do make a good point about slang dating a book. It is one of the drawbacks of colorful language. Slang can work as a historical advantage (proving accuracy), but most of the time when writing in and about the current decade slang makes the dialogue fake and outdated. And that is when the slang is only a few years old. Best not to use. Best to make up your own slang, like Burgess. Then there are not any time constraints and the language will always seem fresh to a new reader.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I hope this is the kind of thing in the new book about writing, along with how to write dialogue. I need a solid point of reference I can depend on.

Julie Sondra Decker said...

Great thoughts on dialogue. Just like K.E. Skedgell (above), I wrote a book that's set in a time whose language I can't duplicate (and if I could, it wouldn't have been a good idea to do so). You can't sacrifice the tone and voice of what you're writing to the gods of language realism. I don't think it's a good idea to leave slang out of a novel if it's MEANT to be tied to a certain time period/place and won't read well taken out of that time period/place, just like you shouldn't be overly detailed about the fashions and movie stars and technology of the time unless you want to be dated pretty much before your book gets published. But there are ways to convey informality, hipness, youth, and now-ness without relying on what people are actually using to express those flavors today.

Seeley Street said...

I appreciate this post. It's got me thinking, and rethinking. I'm in a tricky situation. Like a few others, I'm working in historical fiction and brother, there's so much cool cat, groovy, beautiful, freakin' slang available to tap that it's a bit overwhelming. I think I need to include some of it--to make the time authentic. Perhaps I could put it in the mouths of my secondary cameo characters (for humor)? In part, Sixties slang defined the identity of a generation, a private language, tribal. Still thinking.

AR said...

That's so helpful. Even in my head I sound different than people talk... I was afraid no one would be interested in the sort of dialogue I tend to come up with.

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