WHAT’S PLAYING: Dido “My Life”
Yesterday, a representative from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) stopped me for a chat. She asked me how I liked being in the Chemistry department.
Unfortunately, one of the plant managers happened to be passing at that moment.
He stopped and stared at me. “Wait. What?”
“Um, never mind,” I mumbled. “I like my job very much. Thank you for asking.”
The two of them chuckled and continued on their way.
I will be the first to admit that my language can be a little…colorful. It all comes from being raised in the South, where idioms dating back to the seventeenth century are still used in every day conversations.
I hadn’t set out to learn them. English is a hard enough language without having half a dozen expressions for a single concept. (Seriously, it’s ridiculous. And homonyms. Don’t even get me started on homonyms.) It wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get a handle on the English language, only to move up North and find that I had to learn it all over again.
First, there was the rapid fire speech pattern. Compared to the slow Southern drawl I was used to, it was like being peppered with bullets. On top of that, they kept using words I had never heard before: ayuh, jimmies, and leaf peepers.
Worse still were the stares I got when I answered. Since I learned English in school instead of absorbing it from my family, I don’t have a heavy Southern accent. Or any accent, really. But I do use Southern expressions like “well, shut my mouth” and “bless your heart”, along with a couple of less recognizable idioms such as “how the cow ate the cabbage” and “ugly enough to knock a buzzard off a gut truck”.
Finally, one of my friends threw up his hands in exasperation and said, “I give up. Who talks like that?”
Short answer? I do. And about a dozen other people. (I’m sure there are many more. I just don’t know them. See “loner”.) Not all the time, usually when I’m upset or nervous. Like when a NRC rep stops me in the hall to ask about my job.
Truth is, even without the drawl or accent, my speech patterns mark me as a Southerner. Every word that comes out of my mouth says something about who I am, how I’m feeling and how I perceive myself and the world around me. I’m sure reading this blog has told you a lot about me, more than I’d probably be comfortable with if I really took the time to think about it. It’s a roadmap through my thoughts. (And if you’re still on this journey with me, bless your heart.)
The same should hold true in writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. The dialogue should feel real, but not too real. Get to the good stuff. Idle chit-chat is just filler unless it has a purpose, or subtext, or serves as a contrast to another, more interesting event. Something.
Let’s say I write a scene featuring two men sitting in a parked car. Man A looks up at the sky and says it looks like rain. B agrees and says that it’s been unseasonably warm for November. A nods and wonders if there’s something to all this talk of global warming. Boring.
Now, let’s take those same two men and have them hold the same conversation. Only this time, they’re waiting outside the apartment of a man they’ve been sent to kill. All this talk of rain and global warming occurs while checking weapons, pulling on gloves and glancing at the backseat to make sure they have enough plastic in which to wrap the body.
Now, we got something. A bit rough, perhaps, but you get the point. It’s not about what they’re saying, but what we’re hearing. Just like in real life.
So, give your characters dialogue that means something and keep your readers happy.
Like necrophiliacs in a morgue.