Sunday, 10 March 2013


Della has been teaching us the use of dialogue in fiction writing. It’s a fascinating subject because dialogue gets caught between two stools. Make it absolutely accurate and it will be boring or incomprehensible. Make it grammatically perfect and it will be unreal.

Accurate but boring? Yes. Try listening to a real conversation and then imagine it committed to a page exactly as spoken.
          “Hello, Myra. How are you keeping?”
          “Oh, not so bad. Me feet are still playin’ up, like I told you, you remember? Saw the doctor again last week. Such a long time you ’ave to wait, don’t you? Told me to rest up more, ee did. Mind you, I could tell you about restin’ up.....”

Are you still awake? That is so boring, and yet so very real.

What about accurate but incomprehensible? Well, most people in these islands speak a dialect of English, using words, expressions and accents that vary from place to place. There are times when those dialects can be difficult for a stranger to follow. In an age of mass communication it sometimes surprises me that I can see a member of the public interviewed on a news broadcast.... and be totally baffled by what is being said. Sometimes I feel I need the speaker to slow down so that I can assimilate the dialogue, but the speaker is rattling off the words at a rate of knots. I switch on the subtitles and it also is confused to the point of putting up garbage on my screen.

Clearly it would be unwise to use extreme regional idioms exactly as they are spoken. They need to be modified, tweaked, retaining the essence of the dialect while also being made easier to understand. In other words, the dialogue needs a spot of editing.

At the same time, the writer should steer clear of dialogue that is BBC perfect when writing about regional characters. Imagine this: a man walks into a shop.
          “Good morning. I wish to make a formal complaint about my purchase.”
“Yes sir. What was wrong with your purchase?”
“It does not meet with the standards portrayed upon the packaging. In particular, the contents within the outer wrapping fall well below the legal limit. I believe I am due some form of redress.”

That is grammatically correct but, especially in a regional setting. it doesn’t work on the printed page. Let’s try again. A man walks into a shop.
“Ere, you can’t get away with this!”
“What’s wrong, sir?”
“It’s this pie, innit? No bloody meat inside. All bloody pastry, innit? I want me money back.”

Boring? No. Comprehensible? Yes. Realistic? Totally.

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