My granddaughter stayed with my wife and me this past week and brought a short-story writing assignment she needed to complete for her sixth-grade English class. As “the writer” in our family, I believed I had two options: 1) Butt in and expound all that I’d learned about the craft, or 2) Butt out and listen. Allow my granddaughter to compose her story first, then, perhaps, offer a few suggestions. I chose the second option.
As my granddaughter reviewed her work, my wife pointed out a few spelling errors, plus suggestions to avoid excessive word repetition and to lean toward more active verbiage. I was impressed by their interaction, made some mental notations about the piece, but ultimately had very little to add.
Next day, my wife and I chatted about our grandchild’s homework, which expanded to a discussion regarding writing in general, then veered toward dialogue and narrative. More specifically, what is acceptable and what is taboo.
“In dialogue you can get away with anything, right?” my wife said.
“Pretty much,” I replied, “which is one of the reasons I love writing dialogue. The other is, dialogue allows my characters to speak for themselves, which helps put my mind more in line with my characters.”
I went on to explain that, for writers, dialogue is both liberating and revealing. Liberating because most people speak in fragmented sentences, peppered with slang and contractions––it’s just what we do––so perfect grammar in dialogue can be ignored. An English professor character, however––unless he chose to travel incognito––would consistently speak in complete, properly structured sentences. No worries about tickets from the grammar police with that guy. Dialogue is revealing because the manner in which a character speaks quickly paints a picture for readers as to whom that character really is. One or two lines of well-written dialogue can replace an entire paragraph of descriptive narrative. Therefore, in order to keep dialogue real and effective, writers need to consider each character’s background. Whether the character is an average Joe, a low-life, or a well-educated success story, dialogue needs to accurately reflect the unique traits of each speaking character.
In the first draft of my first novel, my 1950s Private Eye always spoke in complete sentences. When I re-read the manuscript, it was painfully obvious that his dialogue was off. Rough and tumble PIs of that era didn’t talk that way. Their speech was choppy and to the point. They frequently interrupted their clients’ or suspects’ speech without regard. My hard-boiled PI was Miss Manners. Re-write!
I snickered. “Then there’s dialect.”
Dialect in dialogue can not only point toward social status, but also geographical or ethnic roots. Although dialect may be further revealing, writing it can also present obstacles: 1) When using dialect, the spelling (misspelling) of certain words too often becomes a matter of writer interpretation, not consistency; 2) Because of the inconsistent spelling issue, dialect is not easy to write; and 3) Because of 1 and 2, readers can frequently get lost in dialect. Dialect is fine to help initially define a character, but similar to cooking with garlic, a dash adds flavor; too much inspires diners to stop eating––with excessive dialect, readers to stop reading.
“What about writing narrative?” my wife inquired.
“Ah.” I grinned. “That’s different.”
Although a good novel features a balanced blend of dialogue and narrative, writing narrative today can tread a fine line. Although narrative should typically conform to the rules of grammar, every writer also needs to establish and express their individual voice. It’s the writer’s voice that can create the rub.
In the literary age, long, flowing, properly constructed, often flowery sentences were the norm––the ideal. Fast-forward to twenty-first century fiction and that once-preferred format has evolved. Yes, the rules of grammar still apply, but, depending upon a writer’s ability to weave a tale and capture an audience, those rules may be artfully sidestepped––okay, abused a little. Similar to poetry, a skillful novel or short story writer’s voice also establishes a tempo within the telling of their tales, a recognizable meter that differentiates one writer from another and may include a grammarian’s nightmare of fragmented and even one-word sentences.
My wife nodded, then glanced at her smartphone––time to summarize.
Simply put, a guideline for writing dialogue is: Know the characters, keep dialogue real, and don’t fall in love with dialect. For narrative: Pay attention to grammar, but don’t neglect your writer’s voice. However, if your uninhibited style distracts readers rather than encourages them, consider steering back toward the basics and make the grammar police smile.
To my fellow writers, whether you’re a strict grammarian or a free-wheeling wordsmith, a novelist, a poet, or a short story ace, keep writing and improving, and enjoy your craft.
Thanks for stopping by.