Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tone Deaf

I am reading a book written by a woman with a tin ear for the way people talk.

I'm not going to name the book or author. It as mailed to me for review, and I make a point of not panning books I don't like. I don't lie and say I think it's great. If anyone reads my reviews they can be sure I really am recommending the book to them. If I don't like 'em, I just don't review them. As I think I've said, I know how hard writing can be and I honor the effort even if I don't like the result. Suffice to say for the purposes here that it's a self-published novel by a first-time novelist who has apparently never listened to people talk.

The story isn't that bad, I suppose, although it's a romance, and that's not my thing. But the dialogue is so painful that I can't read more than a page or two before tossing the book across the room.

Here's a small sample (but it's no better on any randomly chosen page.) A small girl thanks the main character for a gift. "Captain, thank you for my doll," she squealed. "She is so lovely." ... "You are most welcome, Rianna."

Seriously? A girl young enough to be pleased with the gift of a doll says, "She is so lovely?" And the reply, "You are most welcome." Is that the way we're supposed to believe this woman pirate captain talks?

Dialogue is not easy to write. People get self-conscious and it becomes almost too stiff and formal.

I think I write pretty good dialogue. Of course, I'm sure the woman who wrote this book thinks so, too. Maybe I'm kidding myself as badly as she is. But others have mentioned it, and it feels right to me.

And that's probably a key. There are no rules about dialogue, other than "How does it feel? Does it sound real?"

But there are some things we can do to improve. The first and most important is to go out in a crowd and listen to people talking to each other. You have to train yourself to ignore the content, the what they're saying, and listen to how they say it.

Obviously different people from different backgrounds or "stations in life," as the Victorians said, will talk differently. And two people who know each other well talk in a verbal shorthand (married people practically speak in code) while strangers talk in a slightly more formal style.

But use your ears. Listen. For one thing, people in conversation don't use so many adverbs and adjectives, and they use contractions. They stop and start, use fragments as they edit themselves in midstream. "She is so lovely" in a real conversation would almost certainly come out as "She's beautiful." (Don't know why, but I don't trust "lovely" in this context. Sounds wrong for a kid.)

Where are some places you can eavesdrop in conversations? Not because you're nosey, of course. Public transportation is good, malls, restaurants. You just have to be close enough to be able to listen without being noticed. Try not to be obvious, and don't take notes. If they notice you, they won't like it. And they won't be mollified when you explain you're working on your novel.

There's a downside. You'll find yourself at parties, eyes half closed, your mouth possibly agape, as you try to tune in to the sound of an argument from across the room.

If you're not sure about something you've written, try reading it out loud. Seriously. Read it out loud and ask yourself if it sounds real. Or you know what might work, and might be fun, to boot? Have a friend over. Tell him/her what the character is and what information you need to convey in the conversation. Then you be one character, he/she be the other, and improv it, just like a theater game. Try it a couple of times and record it. Play it back and see what it sounds like. After a few tries, you can probably improv whole scenes, and our friend does half the work for you.

That may be why (I think) I write good dialogue, or part of it. I've done theater for almost 20 years. You rehearse enough, you think about the scene and the content and the character and it starts to become second nature.

But I could be wrong, of course. I could write conversation not a whit better than the sample I gave. So let me give you this shipboard conversation from "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter." We've established that these are all 18th century sailors, common tars. They've known each other for years.

How ‘bout a song Mickey, eh?” he asked.
The man he addressed, a tow-headed Irishman with a sweet tenor voice, just looked at Charlie, his teeth still working on his salted beef, his plate still half full.
No?” Charlie said, undeterred. “How 'bout you, Sid?”
Stevens was also still eating, and called back, “Why don’t you sing, Charlie.”
Everyone seated nearby laughed, Charlie not the least.
Me sing? While you’re eating? Well, if you don’t mind me chasin’ away all the fish and making birds fall from the sky, sure!” he said to even more laughter from those who knew him.

I did read that out loud, and it sounded right to me. It's not an important exchange, just some working stiffs killing time. Although it does lead to something, so there's that. So it's important that the reader believe these guys. If it were written in the style of that other book, Charlie might have asked, "You want me to sing?" instead of "Me sing?" I think my way works better.

Why does it matter? How we express ourselves, both the words we choose and the way we say them, are very personal indicators of who we are. Same is true of your characters. The way they talk is just as important, maybe more important, than your description of their face or hair or clothes. Get it wrong, and readers will not believe your characters. If they can’t buy your characters as real people in a real situation, they're not going to buy into your story.

Just like I can't believe that little girl with the doll she thinks is so lovely.

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