Grunts, sighs, whistles and....

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Silence of the Lambs

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
How do you deal with denoting who is speaking and how their voice sounds?

I'm currently writing a short story, that's growing into a novella, about a widowed hedge witch meeting a newcomer to her village, a handsome widower, who appears to have arcane knowledge, but is reluctant to engage in conversation about it, when she makes hints. To write their interplay, a lot depends on the tone of their voices—only so much can be conveyed by word choice, for them talking and me as the narrator.

Dialogue is one of the trickiest areas of writing to make realistic. Much of everyday conversation is full of filler words, delaying tactics, pauses and irrelevancy. For example, in writing crime novels, I'm well aware that when my detective interrogates a suspect, he gets results quicker than would happen in real life, where questioning can go on for days.

Mark Twain highlighted this dilemma well:

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever so effective as a rightly timed pause.

There's also the problem of accents, for writing them phonetically looks patronising and can be awkward to read. Many writers, including me, drop the occasional colloquialism into a local person's speech. In Cornwall, a greeting might be "Awright, me 'andsome?"—meaning "How are you, my friend?" I've met some Cornish men and women, whose accents were thick enough to cut with a bread knife. Transcribing their speech accurately would be tricky to do and to read.

Recently, I came across a television spy drama where the writer, or maybe the director, hadn't bothered with accents at all. It was an episode of Callan, a series that ran from 1967-1972. Well-written by James Mitchell, with great characterisation and brilliant acting, the episode I saw had David Callan captured by the Russian secret service. None of the KGB agents sounded Russian, rather their British accents made it easy to forget that Callan was imprisoned in Moscow. However, the skill of the actors conveyed with one shift of expression, what would have taken a novelist a dozen words to describe.

Curious about how audiobooks deal with this side of drama, I listened to several extracts from novels set on foreign shores, finding variable results. Should my Cornish Detective series ever reach audiobook format, it would be treading a fine line between authenticity and listenability.

It's a common bit of advice from writing gurus, to only use 'said' to delineate who is speaking, partly because 'said' becomes an invisible stepping stone to the reader. Emotion can be conveyed with judicious use of verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives—The suspect moaned "I didn't do it"—but, this runs the risk of looking like stage directions in a script if it's done too often in a novel.

Maybe I have too literal a mind, but I always imagine a character blowing up into fragments when I read he exploded. I have a running joke for my own protagonist Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle, who's alert to finding out if he's been given a nickname by his team, worried that his habit of whistling with amazement will see him called Neil 'Whistling' Kettle. He still whistles, a mannerism that's hard for him to break, as he grew up whistling commands to sheepdogs on his family farm.

Things could be worse, for words often have more than one meaning, some of which are a bit rude!

I feel the key to effective dialogue and adding tone is to include the description of some visual clues as well, so that the reader can "see" the character's emotions. Sub-text, what is not said, is so important and getting that across effectively is the key to good dialogue.

For instance, look at the two conversations below:

"You're going to leave?" he said.
"No, I'm not," she replied.

"You're going to leave?" he said, feeling his heart thumping inside his chest.
"No," she replied, not meeting his gaze. Her hand paused briefly in it's stirring of her tea and then resumed. "I'm not."

The second version conveys so much more about what was said (and what wasn't) than the first.
The worst thing a writer can do in dialogue is write the word 'pause'. Life doesn't pause, it quietens, but things still happen in that silence.

Actors use pauses in film and plays all the time, but the key is, when they pause they don't freeze, they continue acting. In a pause, they may look away, fidget, scowl, cry or there might be a sound effect or set movement. Visually and in sound nothing ever stops happening.

So instead of writing the word pause, when you put a break in dialogue you just need to do (as @Tim James has done above) and insert simple action between segments of dialogue.

Getting accents across is tricky, but if you can get the feel of a character and use language common within that dialect that should get it across.

My overall advice is that if you are writing the dialogue, you're approaching it wrong. Dialogue is a product of the scene, not the other way around. Your characters, their personality, what they know, what they don't know, what they want to know, motivations, desires, their opinion of the other character(s) in the scene etc all inform what is said. If you try and write the dialogue without understanding these elements, it probably won't feel natural.

Letting your characters have a conversation of their own accord can mean that they waffle a bit, but you just have to let the plot curb that in later edits.
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Question about popup submissions

Silence of the Lambs