The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, May 14, 2006

What we talk about when we talk about… um… talking.

by Craig Terlson

Part 2: In the whole learning how to write thing.

Chewing the fat, shooting the shit (or "breeze" if you're tender-eared), or smoking cigarettes and talking smart – that's what my brother-in-law used to call it.

"Well, suppose we should go out back, smoke cigarettes and talk smart," my brother-in-law drawled languidly.

At this juncture, let's not explore my family tree, but just to say beer was also involved. A lot of beer.

I love writing dialogue, always have. I thought I had a knack for the rhythms of speech – finely honed from years of going out back and smoking cigarettes. As I delved deeper into my stack of craft books (remember the ones I read in the tub?), I found dialogue was another oft mentioned topic.

If you've been on this writerly quest with me, you've come across the "do's", "don'ts" and "not evers" in these articles. A "not ever" would be those nasty adverbs that smell up a sentence like goat-cheese yoghurt. In the above example, you could slash the "languidly" from the speech tag by asking yourself "Well, how else would you drawl?"
But that's pretty basic and this is a site full of writers that have long gotten over their addiction to adverbs; they did it slowly, painfully, barely, and fleur-de-lis. (CanCon)

My craft books also taught me that all those "ums", "ahhs", and "wells", though they may form part of the natural rhythm of speech – especially with my father who would take most of an evening to tell a story about going across the street for a pack of smokes; a theme in my family – um, I digress – the fact is that if you leave all those "pulling the cord on the lawnmower" type words in, the dialogue is either boring as hell or the characters sound like a bunch of inbreds from _______ (Insert your favorite local insult – again, best not to mention Calgary).

"Um, well, ah… I best be going," Clem said while going.

You could clean that up with a page from the Carver school of stripped down speech.

"I go," Clem said.

Clem sounds a might more clever now, surely he will be smoking cigarettes later. But what if, unlike Mr. Carver, you grow tired of the "he saids", "she saids" and "it saids" (sci-fi application)? You know well enough to stay clear of those freakin' adverbs. So what's a wordsmith to do?

I've learned you can replace your basic "said" with a more uptown choice. It tidies up the characters, puts a bit of polish on their boots and toilet water behind their ears.

"I go," Clem obfuscated.

Clem sounds like he will soon be switching brands, maybe even moving up to filtered.

(I have found that I don't need to worry if my reader knows the meaning of obfuscated, if they do, they have one up on the writer.)

So to sum up – strip down that dialogue, throw in a few fancy verbs, and take away most of the… ums… ahhs… and ellipses.
Hope this has been helpful.

Next time: "What is a climax? And should I be having more than one?"


Anonymous Denis said...

'and fleur-de-lis'? Too funny. There IS something about smoking with friends or strangers or work colleagues that helps one get into the know. Smokers seem to loosen up when partaking; they let down their hair, and pretenses, and their guard. I guess you've pointed out 1 positive aspect of smoking! Denis exclaims ostentatiously while taking another drag from his cigarette...

Sun May 14, 09:55:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

This is interesting, I realllly enjoyed reading it, and I totallllly agree with you...I love elipses though, oh well, practise, thanks Craig, P xo

Mon May 15, 01:24:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Hey, Craig, sounds like you have a plan! Looking forward to the next one, Bud(weiser)!

Tue May 16, 10:22:00 am GMT-4  
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Wed May 24, 12:43:00 pm GMT-4  
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Wed May 24, 07:19:00 pm GMT-4  

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