Ha’d’wee Rite Gd Dilog
In a good story all the characters have their own voice. Just like us, they’re all individuals and they’ve each got their own mannerisms – including how they speak.
But putting their words down in the way that we, as authors, want them to sound is a darn tricky process.
I was thinking about this because last night I went to a British Council training session for people (like me) who teach English as a foreign language (EFL).
As in most jobs, EFL teachers tend to stick to certain routines. We teach vocabulary and grammar and then we help students string it together so they can read and speak English. But what about listening?
One of last night’s speakers, Richard Cauldwell from Speech In Action, used the analogy of greenhouse and garden to talk about how we teach learners of English. In the greenhouse, we teach them individual words, including spelling and pronunciation. In the garden, we mix them up with a bit of grammar and intonation to form pleasing patterns.
Such as: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
We teach students how to say the words – with a little lift at the end to indicate a question.
But Richard’s point was that at normal speed the sentence might sound more like: ‘Wd’yuh lik’uh cuppa tea?’ (Say it to yourself fast and you might notice the ‘k’ in ‘like’ also disappears.) That’s what he calls the ‘jungle‘ of real, everyday dialogue.
However, if writing speech as it sounds – or how we want our character to sound – can cause problems. If we fill our dialogue with elisions – the technical term for running words together, and dropping vowels and consonants – it can look at best like gobbledegook and at worst as if we’re illiterate. (Your spellchecker will also be underlining everything in red.)
I’ve tried a few times. There’s a gamekeeper in my book The Vault with a strong rural accent and I found his ‘voice’ by speaking his dialogue in my head, listening to how it really sounded and trying to approximate that on the page.
In his superb 2004 book Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell weaves six different stories. The middle one is set in a near(ish) future dystopia where the central character, Zachry, tells the story in his own voice.
And Zachry’s voice is a version of English that has evolved: it’s more phonetic, less grammatical – and takes quite an effort to read. (If the whole book had been told by Zachry I’m not sure I’d have coped.)
Even with my old gamekeeper, I had to be careful. If I’d made his accent too strong and written it how it sounded it would have been incomprehensible. It’s a difficult balance: giving your characters their unique, authentic voice and making sure that readers understand what they’re trying to say.