The Way People Speak

The way people speak. Even if your words are passing directly from your internal world on to the page, you'll still have heard them in your head first.

Even if your reader never speaks them out loud, they too will be hearing them in their heads. We never get away from the live word. Thank goodness. 

And when we do speak out loud?

It all starts with a feeling in the body. As Darwin first noted, and has been evidenced consistently since (e.g. Ekman, 1980; Carlson, 1994), the facial expression we make as the result of any basic emotion, is innate and universal. The sounds we make are partly determined by the movement of muscles making up that facial expression, and therefore by the emotion felt. Therefore, they too are innate and universal. 

In humans, Tartter ( 1980) showed that vocalizations made whilst smiling were of a higher mean frequency than those made with neutral expression due to the effect of smiling on altering the shape of the upper vocal tract; smiling increases second formant frequency. Tartter and Braun also showed that vocalizations made whilst frowning had lower formant frequency and longer vowel duration than speech with a neutral expression; listeners were able to discriminate speech made whilst frowning, smiling, and with neutral expression from each other with no visual input. Furthermore, they were able to do so in both vocalized and whispered speech, suggesting that the same effects of facial expression on elements of affect of vocalization would be applicable to vocalizations.

Understanding that basic, embodied functioning, which unconsciously informs our storytelling, must come first. Secondly we can work with the nitty-gritty of how people speak, and what they say. 

What should come out of your characters' mouths?

Here are some guidelines that will help you to write skilful dialogue and direct speech (that’s the stuff in speech marks):

1. Good dialogue gives an illusion of reality rather than being a copy of how we actually speak.

Two examples of this are:

-Less is more.

In ‘real life’ people chat and gossip. Avoid this in your story. Get to the point (in your round-the-houses way). Don’t put in anything that’s not relevant to the central plot. Keep it moving and you’ll keep the listener or reader engaged.

-Avoid accents, slang and dialects.

Your story needs to be easy to read and listen to. By all means set the story wherever is appropriate, but instead of trying to be ‘real’ and use dialect/slang throughout, just put it in a few places to convey the sense of it, whilst keeping it easy to read. If you send the story out to an agent or publisher you can put a note in to explain the dialect/accent/slang. If your story ever becomes an oral story, radio play, stage play, or film the film is shot, the performers will put it back throughout!

2. People only speak to get what they want.

 A good starting point for a piece of dialogue is to think, ‘what is my character trying to get here…?’ It should tie in nicely with the goal for each step of the hero’s journey.

3. (Yet) people rarely ask directly for what they want.

This would risk rejection and be too scary. So, they (and by ‘they’ I of course mean ‘we’) go round the houses. Say you are writing about a middle-aged couple who are full of frustration about many long unresolved issues. Every night they sit down to dinner. The issues have become TOO BIG to address. So, have them argue about the amount of salt in the food, or the fact the butter was left out and has melted away… You can convey their relationship without ever directly mentioning the relationship. This is more subtle and more skilful.

4. In conversation people do not listen to each other much, nor do they answer each other much, nor do they wait until the other person has stopped speaking before starting to give their opinion (!)

5. Dialogue needs tension.

No ‘yes men’ please. Have people disagree with each other, (it doesn’t need to be all out war every time though!)

6. Avoid back-story.

It’s commonly thought that you need to set up the history of your lead character. In general, you don’t. As we’ve discussed, the reader or listener only really care about the hero achieving her goal. You may include a little information about the hero’s past to a) make the story make sense, or, b) help us to understand his emotional landscape, but, you need less than you think you do. So, alarm bells should be going off if you write things like… ‘I remember…’or, ‘when I was young…’. Be tough with yourself. Ask, ‘do I really need this?’

7. Avoid fads and trends.

If you’re specifically setting your story in the 1960’s, that’s fine. The language should reflect that. However, if your script is set now, avoid using words in common usage now that will change. It is quite possible that three years down the line your book will still be doing the rounds of publishers, and if it looks dated it won’t get past the front door.

8. Improve dialogue by doing a read through.

Even if, and especially if, your story is written to be read rather than performed, get a few friends together to read your story aloud. Don’t take part yourself, just listen. Record the read through so you can re-play it and work on the dialogue. As soon as someone says your lines aloud, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t.

9. If you are ever stuck for what your character should say next, think, ‘What is the most obvious thing they could say now?’ Then, take this line and turn it upside down, have them state the opposite.

10. Every group of people has a language of their own.

For example, mechanics use technical words related to their job. We see the world through the metaphor of our work. Do your research, learn the language.

11. And a final word about how to lay out dialogue. Direct speech always used to appear in speech marks. Nowadays, there are many writers doing it differently. Some are using italics. As long as the listener or reader appreciates that it is direct speech, and knows who is speaking, anything goes. In terms of layout, as a general rule, begin a new line and a new paragraph for each new speaker. 

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The photograph this month is of the very talented Beryl The Feral.