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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXIX

There are a few people who can hear the individuation of different speakers. We have all heard mimics, people who can detect and transmit these differences almost immediately. But most of us only pick up the substance of a conversation. Even strongly marked differences between different speakers are rarely heard well enough to be reproduced.

Try writing down a paragraph as spoken by someone with a foreign accent. Or write down five or six sentences spoken by someone in your family. In both cases you will find that your listening ability is limited to grasping the meaning of what the speaker says and to more or less disregard his or her way of saying it.

In writing dialogue you will probably never write verbatim, as it is spoken in real life.

But nevertheless, listening for the melody, the tone of the spoken word always forms the basis on which written dialogue is built.

We listen; and then we transcribe. Try it, listen to the conversations around you, on the bus, in the supermarket, around the supper table. Find somewhere quiet and write it down, exactly as it happened. Do this over and over again. You may never use these bits and pieces of writing, but don’t worry about that. What you will be learning is how sentences are spoken in real life and what must happen to them when they are transcribed to the page.

Transcribing spoken dialogue into written, successfully, is one of the most important of a beginning writer’s conquests.

You will quickly realise that talk recorded exactly as spoken is redundant to the point of absurdity. On the page it cries out for compression. As it is, uncompressed, it blocks the narrative and leaves no room for anything but itself. It is composed of repetition, hesitation, slurred vowels, ers, ums, pauses, over-emphasis and quickly tires the reader’s eyes and mind.

As a reasonable writer you should be able to reduce it by two thirds without loss of effect.

There are other tasks to come to terms with if you want to write good dialogue. Work on compression for now. In my next post I’ll elaborate further aspects of this subject.

6 Responses to “Learning to Write XXIX”

  1. Eli James says:

    Hear hear, John. Dialogue is quite different from conversation. Now, do you consider my comment are your response to it a conversation or a dialogue? ;P

    jb says: Hi Eli. I don’t mind what you want you want to call it. If we were sitting together talking rather than sitting apart writing, the written transcripts would be quite different.

  2. trevor johnson says:

    John, I know you’re not familiar with the novel, but the best example that comes to mind is Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, probably because it’s one of my favorite books. It’s set in New Orleans, in the late 60’s, and the vernacular is excellent.

  3. Jerry Prager says:

    Actually, one of the simplest places to see the difference between real speech and dialogue is in a court transcription. They go something like
    “well yeah, I was, um.. Actually the thing that got my attention was…um… the way, you know…The colour I guess, hmm, yeah, I think – you know given the way I was standing, and um, he was – well over there by the window, or the door window I mean, um, the colour… um…yeah, the colour.”
    Pages and pages of people talking in fits and starts and dashes off to the side and back to the beginning to pick up something that was forgotten.

    jb says: Hi Jerry. So that’s why judges get paid so much. Um, er, but like, erm, you’re, well I mean, you’re not a judge, are you, Jerry?

  4. Jerry Prager says:

    well, I mean technically, I guess, well I mean no, not really, but um, you know, like I um … I judge things of course, you know know, stuff and well, I have judgment, but I don’t um, well I don’t get paid for… you know, being a judge.

    jb says: I thought so.

  5. TheWeeJenny says:

    This post reminded me of something I read in a writers journal almost ten years ago, I can’t remember the exact wording but it went something like “syntax can be as individual as a fingerprint.” That always stuck with me because it rings so true.

    jb says: Thanks for underlining the point, Jenny.

  6. That’s actually quite fascinating. I’ve never even noticed that before. But you’re right. If I listened to a foreigner speak, I wouldn’t write down his words with an accent unless I was making a conscious attempt to do so. I am currently involved in only writing nonfiction at this time. But this concept makes me want to experiment with writing dialogue.

    Thanks for the interesting insight.

    Kelli Workman

    jb says: Hi Kelli. You’re welcome. I love that feeling, when you discover something that you didn’t know you knew.