Dont Mangle Characters Speech

There was a time, not so long ago, when fiction writers strove for authenticity in some of their stories by attempting to imitate regional and ethnic dialects and pronunciations by purposely misspelling words in their dialogue. Today such practices have fallen into disfavor. For one thing, it takes a very high degree of skill to depart from standard English in dialogue without unnecessarily distracting the reader. For another, styles simply change, and stories using such devices today often seem quaint and old-fashioned. In addition? the sensibilities of minorities are keener today, and they tend to view such mangling of characters' speech as offensive.

For all these reasons, the use of funny spelling or other typographical devices to indicate minority deviations from standard American speech is frowned upon by most cautious editors, and may earn a rejection for your otherwise admirable story.

Some attempts do get by editors and are published. In one recent story, which won't be identified in order to protect the writer, characters in a small town invariably said "shure" for "sure", and "reely" for "really. " Try to pronounce these colorful spellings differently than you pronounce the standard spelling, and you begin to see how absurd specialized lingo can become.

All attempts at specialized dialogue or speech devices are not that silly, but all are very difficult to bring off convincingly. Even trying to create "Britishisms" for a Londoner in your story may look awkward to the reader, or even wrong. British argot and slang change as quickly as does American usage; if you get caught using last year's terminology, your informed reader is going to think you're an oaf- and not like your story.

Strange to say, but danger lurks also in much use of mainstream American slang and colloquialism. All such speech fads change fast; what's trendy today may be already dated by the time your magazine story or book see the light of day. It seems only yesterday that kids said things were "super" or "neat. " Later the same things were said to be "awesome" or "out of sight. " In the academic world, where slang doesn't go, specialized jargon changes just as fast. Where college professors once talked about "paradigms", they began talking about "models", and where they used to say a certain change would "reverberate", they later said it would "impact. " Surely you can think of many similar examples.

The moral? Avoid trendy speech. It will certainly date your story next year, or the year after that. Just read Sinclair Lewis today to see this clearly. A novel like Babbitt was on the cutting contemporary edge when it came out many years ago. Now the archaic slang makes much of it read like a museum curiosity.

Words misspelled to indicate offbeat pronunciations, dialogue words full of apostrophes to indicate the dropping of letters, excessively fragmented sentences in character talk, and all such devices of realism are often extremely irritating to editors and would-be readers alike. They sometimes obscure meaning, too. And they distract readers from what's going on in the story, and instead focus them on your verbal gymnastics. An occasional elision and use of standard contractions will suffice to make your dialogue readable and realistic. All attempts at more only court disaster.

Finally, while we're looking at ways your lingo can mess up your story dialogue, please consider another error that beginning writers often make in quest for realism. That's the whole question of profanity and obscenity in character speech.

I am now in my third decade of dealing with young writers. Quite a few over the years have been military veterans. Many of these guys wanted to write fiction based on their experiences in the military. Inevitably, they brought me copy studded with oaths, obscenities, curses, filthy puns and all manner of verbal crud like that which is so prevalent in the military (and in a lot of other fields, for that matter). When I protested that a very great many editors are surprisingly bluenosed about excessive use of "dirty words", my young males always protested vehemently that that, after all, "is the way it is. "

I have seldom succeeded in convincing them that dirty talk often looks dirtier on the page than it actually is. I have tried to convince them that such strong words, if they are to be used at all, should be saved for those story situations where a really strong word really is needed to convey the emotion. But I haven't convinced many of that viewpoint, either.

So over the years a steady stream of Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine stories and novels filled with dirty words have winged their way out of Norman, Oklahoma, and its environs, headed for the great literary marts of New York. So far, every one of them-every one of them - has failed to sell. And I am convinced that the gross language was the only factor that doomed several.

Most of us let slip a cussword once in a while. A few in a novel are certainly not going to shock anybody. But it's a rare, rare bird who has enough talent to sell a story or novel with a high percentage of those words in it. You might be able to mention several examples of books that prove such realism does get published. I can give you the names of dozens of talented people who never got published at all because they couldn't keep the garbage out of their characters' mouths.

You will make your own decisions about character speech. However, I hope you'll think about the points just raised. Oddball spellings, excessive dropped letters to indicate colloquial mispronunciations, attempts at racial or ethnic dialect, and heavy use of realistic dirty talk all risk offending someone; some you might offend will be editors, who have the checkbooks, and others may be members of honorable American minorities who have already been thoughtlessly battered, verbally and otherwise, for a dozen generations or more. Under such circumstances, is it really necessary?

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