Sparked by Words

You Don’t Talk So Good


“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with  a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for my supervisor.”) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to lasso is the perfect elocution of the English professor. Formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat, finger pointing in the kid’s face.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – It ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it’ll be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hot spots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that produced them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched. Even the ugly ones.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in our writing is to say less, implant a red herring, or imply more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented example you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping even if readers think I talk funny, they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation, to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

I’ll run this idea by my grandson.


Painting courtesy Google public domain images:



Comments on: "You Don’t Talk So Good" (35)

  1. That’s an interesting point, but very true too. I guess sometimes authors must simply write the grammar mistakes into dialogs (through gritted teeth perhaps) if they are going to make conversations sound authentic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Me, too–about rephrasing the stuffy dialogue with something realistic. Good article, girlfriend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read two conflicting views on how dialogue should be written. Actually, more than that but it’s the two I fight with in my head. One author states that how a character speaks should be withing the narrative sentences surrounding the dialogue, but the dialogue itself should be proper. The other author states that the dialogue itself should reveal as much of the character as possible, including grammar errors, spelling goofs [wrong pronunciation], terms of the location and time, education of the characters, and accents. The first insures appropriate grammar and spelling throughout the story, supposedly making it easier to read. The latter more or less guarantees the reader will feel more like they’re in the story and will enjoy it more. Someone like Jane Austin or Charles Dickens would insist the first way is the only way. Yet, what would Greg Iles or Steven King say? I prefer the latter, both while reading AND writing. Both ways, I feel myself getting into the story, which I consider to be the whole point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glynis, I agree that the latter method works better for me as writer and reader. Dialogue promotes the story in more ways than merely conveying information. It suggests what is being kept secret or even lied about by the speaker as well as their frame of mind. Perfect speech is unlikely for most people and will obscure or confuse readers as to the authenticity of the character. Though sometimes that’s the point.

      Thank you for a well considered reply.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m voting for the second way also as both a writer and reader. The first way would normally make me find the character unbelievable and hence the story would be lost to me. I do, however, think that the narrative around the dialogue is important for adding important information such as gestures which may give the reader a clue that things aren’t as the dialogue tells.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a veddy good post cuz it weren’t outta my erudite comprehension.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post. Dialogue is one of the biggest challenges for a writer. I like the point you made about your English Lit background getting in the way. I have to always check my New Yawk habits to make sure they don’t appear in my dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I find poor grammar difficult to forgive … but I hear you loud and clear! We come across as ponderous anachronisms, sometimes, don’t we? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article Sharon. I love dialogue. Whether I’m good at it or not is for someone else to judge but I love writing it. I agree a person has to sound authentic otherwise the reader finds them unbelievable as a character and that for me at any rate tends to follow on to the storyline as well. When you write do you write first an overview of each of your characters? I really have never written a true fictional character which means I usually know the character’s traits and history before writing. The odd dabbles I have made into flash fiction I usually have someone in mind that I am copying for character. Would love to know how you evolve your character – before or during the writing? You can answer this when your arm recovers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • your supportive comment means so much to me today – thank you. and how are you healing? this aging process is more painful than the one i signed up for – you too?

      thanks for understanding my temporary circumstances, irene. should i not answer you in a month, remind me. in fact, would make a great post – for next month!


  8. I really enjoy Whit Stillman’s use of language in his movies. People don’t really speak the way his characters do, but I love it. Have you seen Metropolitan or any of his others?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent post. My bete noir is the subjunctive tense – I can’t bear getting it wrong, either for my own part or my characters’. I’ve currently got my protagonist at one point in my first draft consciously choosing to ignore another character’s “butchering of the subjunctive tense” – despite her being in no way an English teacher – just because it was the only way I could force myself to allow the character in question to use “was” when she should have used “were”! I will have to go back and take out this piece of self-conscious nonsense in draft 2 – for now, I’m hoping that leaving it to sit and fester for a while will be enough to make me come to terms with just how ridiculous I’m being!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your last paragraph says it all, Shari. For me, as a pseudo social scientist, I chose to also know the people I surround myself in the same way. You’re a wonderful speaker in and out of your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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