Hi everyone! The rush of New Years is over, and I hope you are all well rested, sober, and ready to tackle 2014. Have you created a simple Business Plan For Writers to help you define areas of development and to keep on track when it comes to your goals?
While you’re mulling that over, I’m turning the blog over to fellow writer Eli Dahle, who is tackling something fascinating: Colloquial Speech. Flavoring dialogue with unique speech habits or slang can create voice magic, but overdone, it can distance readers. Eli’s got some tips on how to handle these effectively.
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The successful use of colloquial speech in dialogue is a key element of character development. Done right, it can impart a strong sense of realism – of time, of place, of character – to your work. It can draw your readers into the story and help them relate to your characters. Colloquialisms can also be fun as you, the author, are given license to use bad grammar and indulge in profanity so long as it is true to your character.
Colloquial speech is the way any person – in this case, your character – talks in casual conversation. Maybe your character stutters, or sprinkles her sentences with “um’s” or “er’s”. Maybe she forgets her grammar when she is upset, quotes the bible, uses specific slang or spouts clichés. The possibilities are endless.
There are no hard and fast rules when using colloquialisms other than the most basic: be true to your character by understanding how their experiences, education level, background and personality factor into the way she speaks. That said, the following are some tips that I like to keep in mind in order to maximize the impact of colloquialisms on the dialogue:
Further the Story
As with other elements of storytelling, colloquialisms should further the story. They do this by adding depth to characters through realistic dialogue. When using colloquialisms, think through your character and how he or she would speak, as well as why they speak that way. Do it well and readers will become emotionally connected to the characters, and care what happens to them.
Listen, Listen, Listen
Dialogue, including colloquialisms, feels more authentic when pulled from real life. Turn on your inner tape recorder and listen to how people around you talk. The goal is inspiration, not transcription, as you will want to combine bits and pieces from various conversations. Once you have written a piece of dialogue, read it out loud. Does it sound like something a living, breathing person might actually say?
Keep it Real(istic)!
Fiction doesn’t have to BE real but it has to FEEL real. It is this believability that draws readers into your story, whether you are writing about 19th century Paris, the house next door, or a battle on the planet Neptron. Using colloquialisms to strengthen the sense of place can pull readers into the story and make characters feel more believable. But that doesn’t mean you need to include every ‘um’ or ‘err’ or stutter. The author’s job is to include just enough to impart realism.
My personal favorites when it comes to believable colloquial writing include Mark Twain, Michael Chabon and Stephen King. A Guardian newspaper list nominates Maugham, Steinbeck and Waugh. Unfortunately, as any avid reader knows, popular fiction is rife with unsuccessful colloquialisms, from the dead dialogue of Dan Brown’s characters to the clichéd exclamations in 50 Shades of Grey.
Avoid Clichés and Stereotypes
It can be tempting to latch onto something readily identifiable or stereotypical when writing dialogue, such as a Southern twang or the word “ain’t”. There’s nothing wrong with this but you don’t have to make your character sound as if she just crawled out of the Okefenokee Swamp. In fact, doing this can achieve just the opposite: a cardboard cutout of a character. The goal is to tailor speech just enough to create a unique, three-dimensional character.
Don’t Detract or Overdo It
I like to think of colloquialisms as the icing on the cake, something possible to do without but which, when done right, turns good into great. If the colloquialisms clang and bang against the reader’s eardrum and detract from the story you are trying to tell then, hey, it may be better to forego the icing. It’s also easy to go too far.
Take, for example, the following excerpt from Trainspotting:
“Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it.”
For me, it’s just too much and I find myself distracted from the story by the author’s overuse of colloquial speech.
With colloquialisms, less is often more. I once wrote a mystery from the point of view of a character who spoke with a distinctive vernacular, thus freeing his colloquialisms from the confines of dialogue. Readers of that early draft found the language realistic but distracting. I overdid it with all my ‘aint’s’ and bad grammar. One solution – taken by many authors, including me in my re-write – is to keep the narration clean and confine colloquialisms to the dialogue.
Colloquialisms can help form unique, three-dimensional characters, powering their dialogue with authenticity. But as with all literary devices they should be used with care. The goal is to find a balance that will add to, not detract from, the story you are trying to tell.
Eli Dahle is a former journalist, Ivy-league educated international lawyer and author. He has published a number of newspaper and scholarly articles and is an active blogger. His memoir, Behind the Codeine Curtain, is currently being prepared for publication and he is now working on a murder mystery set on a gilded-age estate.
ANGELA IS ON THE PROWL, discussing how Friction Between Characters Amps Up a Story over at Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn blog. If you want to see how you can create some tension clashes using your characters’ personalities, stop on in!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.