Tag Archives: How not to write dialogue

Ten-dollar words #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances they can become repetitive. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. I have found it saves time to use the hard copy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.

But this leads me to the problem of using words that are jarring and obscure.

The important thing is to remember the audience you are writing for. If you are writing for a YA (Young Adult) audience, remember their reading level. They are just embarking on the reading journey, so don’t use words that my editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.”

Quote from Blogging.com: What is a Ten-Dollar Word? A ten-dollar word is a longer word that is used in place of a smaller and more well-known word. The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use highfalutin words to inflate their appearance and seem smarter than the more average man. Words like these serve a very important purpose; they make you seem smarter than you actually are. One profession that’s very intelligent with their use of these words is the legal profession.

These words will stop the eye of the newer reader, who must set the book down, get the dictionary, and then look the word up. Or they will simply set the book down and not return to it.

The reason new readers often don’t like Literary Fiction is that they don’t understand many of the words and feel “talked down to.” Literary Fiction is work written for the experienced reader with a wide vocabulary. Children’s books and Middle Grade and Young Adult novels are the training grounds for readers, enabling them to gradually widen their vocabulary without their realizing it.

One of the worst places to get creative word-wise is with dialogue tags because it becomes telling rather than showing. Your punctuation and the physical action should convey the emotions. Some tags that are jarring and unnecessary are:

  • Ejaculated
  • Exclaimed
  • Moaned

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye.

Something authors must consider: People don’t snort, smirk, smile, or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and cannot speak.

This means that we add gestures and actions to the conversation to show the emotions, making it meaningful.  Otherwise, stick with a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Conversely, don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

Where you place the speech tags in a sentence is important. Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out.

However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but

  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Authors must create a balanced narrative.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what, and don’t like being confused. They like being challenged, but don’t want to have stop and look more than one or two words up. They don’t want to be jarred out of the book by ten-dollar words. And finally, they don’t want to be told a story. They want to see it happen.

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#amwriting: using foreign languages in your dialogue

Long Live Dead Languages

At my Tuesday morning therapy writing group, a friend was telling me about a post she had seen in an online writers’ forum. The question ran something like this:

Questioner: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

My friend gave the answer I would have: The answer to BOTH options is NO!!!

Translations should not be necessary at all. Never give a large amount of dialogue to a character who doesn’t speak the native language the book is written in. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

We all laughed, but afterward, I was still thinking about this issue. The author whose post had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Let me be clear on this: too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the use of the em dash or ellipses fills the function of setting portions of the narrative off for emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way.

If you are writing a character who speaks a foreign  language, consider how they are commonly portrayed in novels that are traditionally published. Take any spy novel with a plot that takes place in both Mexico and the US. It has American characters, including the protagonist, who is a CIA agent and is fluent in both Spanish and English, and it features a large cast of Mexican citizens who may or may not be bilingual.

Because the book is intended for an English-speaking audience, when the Spanish-speaking characters are talking to each other in their native tongue the dialogue is still in English. At times, a few, commonly recognized words in español may be sprinkled in to lend the flavor of Spanish.

You must clearly establish that the characters are speaking their native language, Spanish, in the narrative. This is particularly important if you have a character who switches between languages or in certain situations where Spanish is the only language spoken.

I happen to read and understand some Spanish, and it is a language spoken by many US citizens, but our readers in the US are, for the most part, English-centric.

It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

yoda gibberish memeNow, why would I say this? Because I find it  irritating as hell (sorry for the editor speak) to stop reading, and hunt down translations.

It is hard enough when authors like Alexander Chee  put large amounts of words in French with no translation. Chee is from Canada and is writing for Canadians. His main character is Canadian, and French is one of his two national languages. For that reason, his mingling of French and English is acceptable, as his work is clearly understood by his intended audience.

My next thought when I was told about this particular virtual exchange was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate? If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDNote the slight change in the translation—one word, “may” or “can”—these words are not always interchangeable, as they don’t mean the same thing in English—so that slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation with “can” gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

Therefore, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. But even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax as our English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain after it was settled by the Frisians. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

Dutch: “Oh nee. Ik heb een gebogen sprak op mijn fietswiel. Hoe kan ik het vast?”

English translation: “Oh no. I spoke bent on my bicycle wheel. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: In English, this implies he was speaking while bent over his bicycle wheel.

If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable. It lends a certain realism, when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just remember, forcing your reader to stop reading and check too many translations is suicide, especially for an indie. Never give your reader a reason to put the book down!


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