Writing Reality: Dialogue, and the Subtlety of Subtext

02/12/2013 at 06:01 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


A quote pulled from my friend @drewchial’s Twitter feed inspired this latest entry:
“It helps to be hyper-aware of what makes each author’s voice unique.”

This got me thinking about characterization, dialogue and subtext; what tricks an author might use to keep the threads independent of one another, as well as individual to each person being portrayed.

I openly confess, I’m not much of a dialogue writer. This may stem from the fact I take less interest in the speech of people, than what they actually do to back up the words. The natural world is full of harsh truths, which I adhere to more closely than social interaction. Nature pulls no punches.
As a kid, I’d find ways to avoid speech, preferring to deal with what I’d later learn – as an English language student – to be paralinguistic features. Body language basically, but also the areas of tone and pitch – not so much what a person says, as how. they say it. I’m forever looking for the shift in tone, the change in stance, which might save a heck load of time (and face) if read correctly. That being said, I don’t claim to be an expert, and some people are more self-aware than others, in terms of what they “leak” out.

This can be made applicable to your characters; their intentions, their framing narrative, open dialogue and encrypted speech. The dance they weave around one another.

I like to know where my characters are coming from in terms of setting and origins, their lifestyle circumstances and social interactions. Dialogue is a great clue-dropper, here. Since writers deal solely in words, without the wider options of visual / audio identification, it’s of paramount importance that the dialogue and narrative structure be held accountable when a scene is set, a message put across.
These are a few tricks I use, gleaned from personal experience and other authors, when presenting a character’s identity in speech.

Accent / Regional Dialect

This can be a double-edged sword. Used sparingly, the odd regional accent/dialect inflection can enhance a character’s voice to the point where the audience may “hear” them, know the arenas they frequent. Just a sprinkling here and there, as with Iain Banks’ quite marvelous The Crow Road:

“‘Aw, it’s just incredible,’ I told them. ‘Her mum told me; Aunt Charlotte. Bit of a nutter, but okay. I mean totally aff her heid really, but anyway…’
‘Aw; runs in the family, does it, Prentice?’ Dean asked.
‘Naw; she’s not a McHoan..'” – pgs. 61/62, The Crow Road

Banks chose to keep these Scottish inflections mainly within the perimeters of dialogue. Though the novel spans several POVs and time-frames, the narrative structure of each character remains for the most part, unbroken by regional identity. It makes for a universal smoothness when reading. Some authors may swear by a full regional immersion, but I’m not one of them.

In terms of field research for accent and dialect, the internet holds a wealth of sites dedicated to the compiling of audio files, for the preservation of sometimes ancient generational speech patterns:

The Speech Accent Archive, has files from across the world, allowing listeners a general rule-of-thumb appreciation of phonetic inflections on the English language, based upon country and region. Also included are descriptions of each speaker’s native origins and other languages spoken, for consideration of how these may add to intonation / inflection. The clips run on a Quicktime plug-in.

I find this site handy for working on narrative and dialogue structures – particularly when filtered through another personal perception. For example, a newcomer in town might remark upon the local staccato vocals or rounded consonants; they may call attention to a word used for an object, which differs from their own (e.g. I know an alleyway, in my Southern dialect, as a twitten; a friend of mine, having spent time in the North, predominantly around the city of York, uses the word snickelway.)

To avoid using the same descriptions, and to liven things up a bit in terms of describing a character’s voice, I like to reference the sound –> colour/shape synaesthesia that permeates my everyday appreciation of speech. A man with a soft vowel-baritone voice, more often than not appears as honey-coloured in my mind.

The BBC voice recordings go deeper still, focusing primarily on the UK: “People talking about language – slang, dialect, taboo words, accents. Other clips cover all sorts of subjects and simply offer a flavour of how we talk today.”

These are of course generalizations, and no one person will sound just like another – origins, historical context and lifestyle, will all factor in. Interesting to note in The Crow Road, is Banks’ choice to employ more accent/dialect twists when the young protagonists are all soused. This is most prevalent in the dialogue of main protagonist, Prentice. Contrast this (reasonably) sober dialogue,

“Really, Ashley, I didn’t think you’d take it so melodramatically. It’s only shop-lifting, after all. Just one silly book, too; worse things happen at C & A’s.” – page 273

to when his temper is stoked on a sensitive issue, and under alcohol’s blurry veil:
“I am not like ma dad!” I yelled.” – page 64, The Crow Road

Try this when writing your own dialogue; if a scene involves heightened tension, does a character’s accent thicken in anger, or when upset? Have they tried to repress it over time, or was it diluted through speech convergence? This is especially applicable if you’re writing a screenplay, or are focusing particularly on interactions between social classes. To use the same inflections, utterances and dialect patterns as those around you, suggests a comfortably habitual state (as in, picking up an accent while travelling, or settling somewhere new) or a desire to conform, to fit in. The same applies vice versa. How does the speech a character uses around others, reflect their relationship(s) with them? When they head back to their original home, is the new style of speech dropped or used as a weapon, to distance a character from his/her roots?

Paralinguistic features and Subtext

I’m quite fond of studying body language. Not only does it come in handy in the real world; it adds that certain nuance of “Show don’t Tell”, as a character depicts their intentions through physical actions / facial expressions, rather than what comes out of their mouths:

“Ash suggested heading back and to the house, and either having some coffee or getting some sleep. Her wide eyes looked tired. I agreed coffee might be an idea. The last thing I remember is insisting I had whisky in my coffee, then falling asleep in the kitchen, my head on Ash’s shoulder, mumbling about how I’d loved dad, and how I’d loved Verity, too, and I’d never find another one like her, but she was a heartless bitch. No she wasn’t, yes she was, no she wasn’t, it was just she wasn’t for me, and if I had any sense I’d go for somebody who was a kind and gentle friend… Why do we always love the wrong people?
Ash, silent beneath me, above me, just patted my shoulder and laid her head on mine.” – pgs.366/367, The Crow Road

The areas I’ve highlighted, speak a thousand unvocalised truths about real love. Ashley is tired, yet she’s willing to stay up and listen to Prentice ramble (about another woman, no less.) What we are prepared to put up with, are prepared to do for a loved one in actual actions, as opposed to lip service paid – these can colour a character’s narrative. What do they say in subtext to one another; who chooses to leave first in a romantic tryst, and does their body language reflect reluctance or eagerness to escape? Do actions mirror what comes out of a character’s mouth – what does this say about their temperament, and how might this affect audience perception of them? How much will they reveal through narrative POV? First person, in particular, can be complex and damning, as well as wholly engaging; how self-aware are they, of their effect on others when they speak and act the way they do? How can this be reflected in an internal monologue?

Look to the films and TV programmes you love, for clues on how to stage emotional impact. Where do the breath-spaces between highly emotive words, lie? What tonal shift occurs when a character doesn’t pay up the goods with a straight answer, or indeed, skirts right around it? And then again, how can subtext and actions bring two characters closer, without need for dialogue?

In this case, all you need to see are the brightening eyes of Charlotte as Bob approaches; and that look passed between them, before the hug. A thousand silent words, right there.

How does a character’s reactions around others, reflect circumstance, relationship, personality? Do they fold their arms and pout, cross their arms/legs and shift their feet away, shutter their faces down, when someone is disagreeable to their senses? (parental nagging, lover’s tiff, questioning for a crime.) What emotions inadvertently leak from them (or not) when faced with an agreeable proposition, or the inference of one – open hands, body turned towards the other character(s), leaning in to close physical distance? A scene can ping with heightened emotion, with a few paralinguistic features laid around dialogue. They also help to break up what may appear as a monotonous flow of speech, as well as making a neat substitute for unnecessary dialogue tags:

“But Matt had grabbed Will by the shirtsleeve and waved the shovel in the air to keep Elinor at bay. My brother wouldn’t take anything. He wouldn’t want anything that belonged to you.” – page 44, The Probable Future, Alice Hoffman

The speaker is Matt, for the new paragraph is his (essential for delineating character identity) and the dialogue appears after his action.

“I chucked a few more pebbles. “Well, it isn’t a very good example to us youngsters, is it?”
“What’s that got to do with the price of sliced bread?”
“Eh?” I looked at her. “Pardon?”
“You’re not really trying to tell me that young people today look to their elders for an example, are you, Prentice?”
I grimaced. ‘Well…’ I said.” – page 10, The Crow Road

That final personal pronoun and tag, seem superfluous to needs here. There are plenty of clues dropped as to who the speaker is, from new paragraph alignments at each shift of dialogue, and facial motions.

As with all aspects of characterization, I can’t emphasise enough the power of people-watching. Become self-aware of your own voice and views; keep a close eye on how often they break that fourth wall, so your characters don’t run the risk of becoming your literary proxies. Go out into the world with open ears and notepad/audio recorder at the ready. You never know when a prize bit of dialogue might be dropped.
Most of all – watch for what people don’t say with their mouths, but give away with their feet, their open palms, their darkened eyes.

 photo thecrowroad_zpsdda190c3.jpg

Dedicated to the late Iain Banks – a master of dialogue, and unspoken truths.

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12 Comments

  1. Diane said,

    Some great information – thank you. I’m new to writing and one of the things I’m realizing is that I must get better at people watching!

  2. Aquileana said,

    Hello Rachel;

    Really a great Post…

    I will try to develop my insights step by step.

    Regarding the unique voice of each author.

    I understand that is the style and even the characterization that define the author’s voice and not strictly the “speaking voices of the characters”

    I can´t avoid thinking about Pirandello´s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author”.
    When characters speak too much, the author just vanishes…

    I believe it is is a matter of balance between the psychology of the characters and the eloquence of these.

    In reference to the “Accent and the Dialect Regional”

    I think it is an essential point that defines the text corpus. This paragraph in your text is very clear to me:

    “These are of course Generalizations, and not one person will sound just like another – origins, historical context and lifestyle, will all factor in”.

    Yet, I don´t consider that regional dialects are a secondary point. In other words, just for being generalziations there are not unimportant, but essential to define the author’s voice and also organic in relation to the plot

    The last point, “the elements paralinguistic features and Subtext”, also seem to give us a key to hear the hidden voice of the author behind the story…

    We can point here Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Molly Bloom´s monologue …

    All this leads us back to the beginning of your argumentative framework.
    There are various elements that define “the voice of an author”.

    The style of a fiction writer is defined by them, but the writer should be cautious, talk to your characters and make them talk, and he just exercising his hidden language domain, through printed words….

    Rachel, congratulations for this post…

    I am grateful of meeting you;

    Wishing you all the best; cheers

    Aquileana 😉

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Wish I could come back with something as articulate as this fabulous response. As it is, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it; several times, to extract thr gist of every area. Thank you for not only reading the article, but giving ME food for thought in return. You express yourself beautifully 🙂

  3. Carrie said,

    In the things that I write, everyone has an Australian accent and their voice in my head, is not dissimilar to my own.

    There are so many nuances with tone, pitch and emotion that I think it would be hard to be to change their accent as well that still portrays everything else as well.

    Ps. Australian accents sound so weird next to English/American accents. Almost fake or amplified times about a million (to us anyway. 😉 )

    • celenagaia33 said,

      I love your accents, every inflection 😉 It’s my favourite next to the Irish accent. Does the Australian accent differ across regions, as in the UK, like more round vowels in one area?

  4. The Art of Listening | Christina Cole Romance said,

    […] Writing Reality: Dialogue, and the Subtlety of Subtext (celenagaia.wordpress.com) […]

  5. Missy Molly Moll said,

    I love this post. Thank you

  6. myeagermind said,

  7. Christy Birmingham said,

    Excellent post, Rachael. I came back today for another read. The details of the dialogue can add so much to a scene. The Lost in Translation video is clip is incredible- a simple look of a face can say so much more than words and actually contradict the words. Thanks for this write!

    • celenagaia33 said,

      I just adore that clip, for how much it speaks with silent code. Big fan of subtext and body language. Thanks so much for this, what a positive affirmation for me as a writer; feels like I’m helping out, which is all I could ask for, really 🙂 Good luck with your writing x

  8. Karen said,

    Excellent post, Rachael. You prove eloquently what Bob Ross always tried to explain to his audience. Painters and writers need to be keen observers.

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