Every now and again I write about writing. This seems to be an amalgam of old and new. Hope you get something new out of it even if you’ve read earlier versions.

Dialogue is an artificial construct. I hadn’t thought about that part of it much until I took a writing course. As a reader, I enjoyed learning about the characters through their motivations or how they dealt with the situations they found themselves in, or by listening in on their conversations. As a writer it was the same, only I realised that the onus was on me to produce plausible characters and create plausible situations and dialogue. Notice that I didn’t say natural dialogue. That’s because what comes naturally, to me at least isn’t very interesting. Sometimes I wish I had a real life script to work from or an editor to stop me from blurting out something that would have been best left unspoken or someone to stop me from saying ‘thingy’ when I can’t remember the word I word I want to use or keep me from referring to someone as whatsisname if I can’t remember their name. That’s natural. That’s dull.

No need to bore you with my um’s and ahs, I’ve edited them out for the purposes of this article. But wherever I am you can generally find a host of them littering the floor around me. And I tend to take forever to get to the point. So I’m told. Of course if you want to show your character as a socially inept or easily distracted type, then that might be the way to go – for that character. But there would have to be more to him or her, or you’ll lose your audience.

You’d think that conversations on public transport would be grist to our writerly mill, but I’ve sat in on many an unedifying talks peppered with ‘he said, she said’ and ‘yeah, no.’ ‘Got it. See ya.’ Now I put my earphones and listen to Leonard Cohen for inspiration. That man is a poet.

Brunch with friends has been known to go something like this:
‘What are you having?’
‘What are you having? My cholesterol is up.’ Toast and coffee. Maybe dry toast’
‘I love the eggs Benedict here.’
‘Me too.’
Old friends, like old married couples spoke shorthand long before contracting words through texting replaced speech. These days the same people are sitting silently across each other at the table, tapping messages out on their IPhone. That’s also natural, but not entertainment.

Know your characters and you’ll know what they will have to say or will do in any given situation. Have you ever anticipated and jumped in ahead of something a friend or a family member was about to say? Have you known beforehand how someone will react when you tell them you’ve lost the first edition book they loaned you or your dog mangled it or child defaced it? That’s how well you need to know your characters.

I’ll never forget a lecturer telling us writing students that before we introduced them to the blank page and to each other we had to know everything about our characters, even the minor ones. Even if we were never going to use everything we knew about them, we had to know them. What did they like or dislike? How were they going to react under stress, when they were in love? Were they cool or were they nerds? Winners or losers? Did they drink? Were they wowsers? What was their political bent? Who were their friends? What toothpaste did they use? Once you knew everything about them they couldn’t surprise you by behaving out of character so to speak.

And speaking of speaking. The style and language of the characters depend on the story you are writing, which century it is set, and when, and who the cast of the tale are. Men, women, old or young or a mix of them all. I’ve known beginner writers who impose young speak on older heads. Everyone swears at some time or other, but a sixty something CEO is less likely to do it as often and as indiscriminately as a 16 year old schoolie.

19th Century Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities) gives up his life so the woman he loves can live happily ever after with her love. Apparently dying for his love was ‘a far, far better thing’ that he did than he had ever done before. I’m sure readers back then thought it was noble, I think even 16 year old me thought so when she read this novel, but now I think it’s ridiculous. I like life. I can only imagine giving it up willingly for my children if I had to. And I don’t think any 21st Century character would disagree with me.

21st Century rapper, Murs, (Love and Appreciation) speaks of love this way:
‘She needs some tampons, homie go to the store
Vitamin water, a bottle of motrin
Teddy bear, candy bar something, a token
Of affection, a step in that direction’

If a rapper is one of your characters then rapper lyrics will definitely give you an insight into who rappers are. Can anyone tell me what ‘motrin’ means?

I don’t read bodice-ripper novels. I’m not being snobby, I just haven’t got around to it. I suspect that there would be a lot of racy dialogue and heaving bosoms. that sort of dialogue is definitely not natural in real life, or should I say not as polished. Phew, I’m wiping the sweat off my brow. Perhaps a visit to my local library this afternoon.

So there you have it. My little bit of wisdom:
Know your characters inside out. Write plausible, not natural dialogue and suit it to the occasion, the character and to the furthering of the story.

10 thoughts on “Editing out the ums and errs

    • You’re not on your own, even veteran writers will tell you they keep notes on their characters. (Imagine George the diabetic getting stuck into an ice cream sundae with all the frills.) 🙂

  1. This post, too. Read it yesterday and enjoyed it very much. I’ve never done character sheets, but with so many people in my new series, I’m thinking I should get working on that right away – before I get too deep in and forget what I know about each one.

    Did you go to the library in the afternoon? 😉

    • Despite all the books out there and all the experts on writing spouting their stuff, that’s best advice I have ever heard. It’s lovely to see your (Susan’s?) bright and sunny face in my inbox. 🙂

      • Definitely Susan’s. 🙂 My hair is halfway down my back these days, and I just did it in an auburn color.

        I always thought character sheets would be so much work, but I find going back through the previous books to see what I wrote before is tedious. It is definitely good advice! Nice to see you, too. Especially nice to catch you online at the moment.

      • Gray runs in my family. My brother was pure white in his early 30’s. I recently let my hair grow out enough to see how gray mine was, but I refuse to put it in print. 🙂

      • Looks like it’s auburn for me too, Maddie, although as you are younger than I am it must be a genetic thing. A friend has been colouring her hair for at least thirty years.

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