Tag Archives: dialogue

A Short Guide to Handling Speeches in Fiction

Whether they take the form of lectures or diatribes, speeches are rarely enjoyable to listen to–unless they happen to combine the talents of a gifted orator and a skilled speechwriter. But this combination is rare. The average speech is, well . . . average. This is generally true in real life and especially true in fiction.

Yet many aspiring novelists think it’s a good idea to include speeches. They appear either as formal addresses to a captive audience or, more commonly, informal monologue. Here’s an example of the latter.  During a coffee break at the lab, Dr. Saurus, a mad scientist who’s secretly recreating extinct creatures in test tubes, lectures his colleagues about the natural history of the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods. But more about the good doctor later.

The problem with speeches is that your plot typically goes on vacation during them, so everything grinds to a halt. The grave danger is that the reader will get bored, impatient, or exhausted and will consign your book to the trash can. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, so what should you do about speeches?

First, consider the purpose of each speech. What does the speaker want to achieve? Cut out anything that’s irrelevant to that purpose. If, for example, Dr. Saurus wants to reveal the nature of his experiments to his colleagues, he should confine his words to those experiments. He shouldn’t ramble on about the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods; the scientists know about them already, and he comes off looking pedantic. He’s also committing the terrible sin of information dumping, which brings me to my second point.

Include only information that’s vital for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening. Anything beyond that is extraneous. If readers want an in-depth discussion about the Jurassic period, they’ll google it or pick up a book on the subject. Don’t pummel them with paragraph after paragraph of facts and figures. When you do, they forget they’re even reading a novel and imagine they’ve mistakenly wandered into a textbook. Remember that few things destroy the fictive dream like a big information dump in a speech. A far better approach is to eliminate such speeches altogether and weave their content bit by bit into the narrative instead of depositing it all in one place.

But if you’re still committed to keeping a speech in and have done your best to rid it of irrelevant material, it may still be too long. If so, there’s a lot more you should be doing. Try interrupting the speech. Consider for a moment that many authors write speeches without properly supporting them with narrative. Reading this is much like listening to the radio; you hear a voice, but you can’t see where the speaker is or what he’s doing. This results in an incomplete sensory experience for the reader. Interrupt monologue with lots of supporting details about characters’ actions, gestures, and expressions. In the Dr. Saurus example, one of the scientists might jump up and down excitedly after hearing about the experiments and spill coffee on a colleague. Remember that the speaker isn’t talking to zombies (well, not usually) but to actual human beings who react to what’s being said, so interrupt using questions or comments from listeners as well. Another of Dr. Saurus’s colleagues might ask him why he wants to recreate extinct creatures and accuse him of playing God. Dialogue and interaction are inherently more dramatic than monologue, which is essentially static, so don’t hesitate to turn speeches into conversations.

As well, you can briefly summarize many points of a speech in narrative form while giving your character choice lines highlighting the most important or dramatic points. For example, you could summarize Dr. Saurus’s experimental procedures in a paragraph but allow him to talk about the exciting results of his work: a baby stegosaurus hatching in his lab right before his very eyes!

Much like Dr. Saurus, you as an author get to play God. You’re in control of everything that happens in your book, so unruly characters needn’t get away from you and run the show. You probably wouldn’t let someone drone on and on in real life uninterrupted, so why let it happen in your fiction? Use the above techniques to more effectively handle speeches. They may take work, but the payoff is prose that will keep readers thoroughly engaged in your work.


The Name Game: Character Names in Fiction

The other day, my friend and colleague Arlene Prunkl and I were comparing notes about how authors sometimes treat character names, and our discussion sparked this post (a good thing, since I’ve been short of inspiration lately). I’d wanted to write about the dos and don’ts of names but realized that what not to do was my chief concern. Here are some name-related pitfalls that are best avoided.

First of all, avoid duplication. Particularly in large, sprawling books, authors are prone to forget that they’ve already used a name, and they may accidentally use it again for a second character, which confuses the heck out of readers. Let’s say two characters have the same surname; readers will inevitably wonder if they’re related. If there’s no explanation of the connection between Dr. Harbinger and Dorothea Harbinger, readers will either keep scratching their heads or assume you mistakenly used the name twice. Either way, it’s a distraction that’s going to pull readers out of the flow of your narrative. Although you may know two people named Harbinger in real life (and they may even be unrelated), it’s best not to have two characters with an identical surname unless the relationship between them is made clear from the get-go.

Similarly, avoid names that sound too much alike or that rhyme. In most contexts, it just sounds silly and makes readers giggle (which is only fine if you want them to). When I was in high school, I had a friend whose parents were Victor and Victoria, which was even funnier when the film Victor Victoria came out. I’m sorry, but Denise and Dennis should probably not be wandering around in your book, let alone having a secret love affair, although certainly Denise and Bryan could be. And Miles, Giles, and Niles should not be let loose unless they are actually triplets and appear in nonsense verse for children.

There’s also the issue of overuse of names. I frequently see this sort of thing in dialogue:

“Well, Miles, how was work today?

“It was fine, Giles, but Niles is going to have to start delegating more work to junior colleagues.”

“I agree, Miles.”

I exaggerate here, but you get the point. When this is overdone, it can feel as if a pair of robots are speaking. There’s something stilted about constantly addressing other characters by name in dialogue. And after a while it just grates on your nerves. If you listen to real people talking, you won’t hear anyone doing this. Think about when you would actually use someone’s name in conversation. It might be when you’ve just been introduced or when you’re saying goodbye. Or it could be when you’re angry with someone or trying to get her attention. Limit usage of the name to these types of instances, and your dialogue will seem much more fluid and realistic.

Also avoid using a character’s name when you could simply use he or she and him or her without sacrificing the reader’s comprehension of what’s taking place in the scene. Consider the following:

Griselda looked in the mirror and admired her reflection. Griselda then carefully applied dark blue mascara and dabbed her favourite perfume, Shalimar, carefully on her wrists. It was a shame, Griselda reflected, that Hank would not be at the banquet to see how she had transformed herself from an ugly duckling to a graceful swan. “It’s his loss!” Griselda said to no one in particular.

Of course this snippet would be better with only one Griselda; the others add nothing except unnecessary repetition. By all means use the name when it’s needed to clarify who’s doing what. If there were two women in the room, for example, you would need to use names more often to help readers distinguish the action of one from the other.

If you avoid these name-related pitfalls, you’ll avoid confusing and annoying readers– and your prose will be seem livelier and more natural too!

The Pros and Cons of Writing Dialect Phonetically in Fiction

In 19th-century novels, it’s not at all unusual to come across dialect that is written phonetically. Consider the following, an exotic bit of Yorkshire dialect from a servant named Joseph in Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847: “There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.” Taken out of context like this, this snippet is nearly incomprehensible; it’s almost impossible to know precisely what Joseph is getting at. (All I know for sure is that he’s telling Heathcliff’s tenant, Mr. Lockwood, that the mistress of Wuthering Heights is not going to let him in). It’s not just the bizarre vocabulary (those pesky flaysome dins) that makes it hard to comprehend, but also the peculiar spellings of familiar words, such as shoo’ll for she’ll, and neeght for night.

Would 19th-century readers have understood any better than we do what Joseph was saying? It’s difficult to know for sure, but I would imagine that at the very least, they would have expected to see phonetically written dialect in novels. After all, such a detailed and realistic rendering of speech would have functioned to clearly convey the speaker’s social standing and level of education, which were important preoccupations at the time, especially in England. But does such dialect have any place at all in 21st-century fiction?

Many contemporary authors, particularly in fantasy and historical genres, continue to attempt phonetically written dialect. I’ve edited about half a dozen such authors over the past year or so, and I continue to puzzle over the question of how much is too much. Current authorities on writing fiction feel strongly that any at all is way too much, and that words like ye and yer, and even dropped gs, should go the way of the dodo. The trend is to shun what Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, call “trick spellings and lexical gimmicks.” Instead, writers are advised to concentrate on adjusting word choice, grammar, and syntax to convey a person’s social status through speech. There is no question at all that this is excellent advice.

The main argument against phonetically written dialect is that it’s simply too hard to read, and naturally it’s impossible to be in favour of anything that destroys clarity in writing. Readers should never get bogged down in dialogue and feel that they have to translate it into English. And if they have to read it multiple times to get the gist of it, then the lexical tricks are clearly overdone. However, is it fair to eliminate all phonetically written dialect? If it was good enough for a literary giant such as Emily Bronte, shouldn’t it be good enough for contemporary writers?

Although I usually advise clients that phonetically written dialect is out of fashion, many still insist on using it because they feel it adds the right note to their work, particularly if the novel takes place in a bygone era. I ask them to consider the tastes and expectations of their audience and sometimes ask them, “Would your readers have trouble with this?” One of my clients gave her novel to several readers to evaluate (a practice I highly recommend). Many of them had read widely in the genre she was writing in. She made a point of asking them specifically whether they could understand the dialect, and most were fine with it.

If your book’s audience has little or no difficulty with phonetically rendered dialect, I see no difficulty in using it. The editing becomes a matter of making the dialogue more readable by eliminating what doesn’t work and maintaining consistency in particular dialect spellings. I tend to toss out particularly wacky spellings that seem distractingly bizarre or vocabulary that I feel most contemporary readers wouldn’t understand. To my mind, authors should err on the conservative side and remember that just a little phonetically written dialect goes a very long way. And if it really does add a little flavour and colour to a book, then that’s hardly a bad thing.