I know many of you reading this blog like writing so I thought I’d dedicate this post to a few things I’ve learned about dialogue over the past few years. My first question to you is have you ever tried to take down a real conversation with all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, changes of direction, and unfinished…?
You get my point. There are ultra-realists who try to write that way but most novelists come up with a kind of compromise between the ‘real’ way people speak and grammatically correct, literary language. When I first started out, my dialogue was too precise. In the first draft of The Secret of the Sirens, my characters all sounded like Enid Blyton ones, talking without elisions such as ‘we have’ rather than ‘we’ve’. The result was that they weren’t very believable. Help from a careful editor, and learning on the job, loosened them up a bit but I still sometimes look back and wish I could have another go! I’ve since written many more contemporary books and found a style that works for me – I know it is not a transcript of real speech but has the flavour of it while not losing the reader (or at least that’s the aim).
The next challenge I had was writing historical language for the Cat Royal series. Getting this right really matters in keeping the reader in the world created; but, of course, it can’t be accurate because we wouldn’t understand, or the characters would seem alien. I remember reading one adult historical novel set doing the late medieval period in France (the author will remain nameless) and I threw it aside when one young character responded OK. ‘No!’ I cried, or maybe it was ‘Non!’ You can’t use twentieth century slang – it punctures the world and all that lovely creative energy escapes. I didn’t finish the book.
So you can imagine my surprise when at one Edinburgh Festival panel on historical fiction a few years back, the chairwoman accused me of doing something similar. She picked on Cat saying something like ‘I could murder a cup of tea’ (I’m not sure of the exact phrase but it had that kind of ring to it). Fellow author, Celia Rees, leapt to my defence, saying that this might be current slang but it was plausible for the period and gave it that historic contemporary feel that makes for lively dialogue. I hadn’t even noticed – it was just something I could hear Cat saying.
It’s a tricky tight rope walk and there are certain conventions. We think medieval people are all ‘Prithee my lord’ and ‘wilt thou’. That’s because there’s a kind of idea of the medieval that came out of Shakespeare’s history plays, went into Victorian historical novels and then on to Hollywood films of the twentieth century. Read some Chaucer and you see how far it is from Middle English – the form of our language that was spoken at the time. It’s probably best to avoid the ‘prithee’ school of historical dialogue now as it feels too much like Blackadder.
My tip is to reflect the education and class of the character, keep to as plain English as you can, but don’t be so buttoned up that you kill any individuality or liveliness in speech. Oh, and where it works, look up some of the old slang that they would have used and pepper it into your dialogue. Hog-grubber! Flash mort! Fogrum! See – there are lots of lovely insults waiting to be discovered.