Flashback Friday: Putting the emphasis on the right syllable

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June was the two-year anniversary of The Empty Pen. The exact day passed without any fan fare, but I thought, hey, why not celebrate by reposting some oldies but goodies? All this month (a month late, I know), I’ll post a flashback post on Friday…enjoy!

In college, I took a screenwriting class. One of our assignments was to write a 20 minute scene and critique each other’s work. I fully admit that my 20 minute scene was awful…especially since it ended up taking the actors about five minutes to read.

However, there was another scene that I thought was worse (no bias, of course). Nothing happened in it. The characters sat around on bean bags, high, throwing around terms that, as a college student, I was somewhat familiar. Most of the terms, though, I only vaguely recognized as having to do with drugs, but wasn’t sure what they meant (the drug itself, the effect, the method of taking, or something else entirely). In fact, at one point, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know if the characters were talking about doing drugs or having sex.

In the critique session, I didn’t talk about the fact that nothing happened, I focused on the language and said something about most theaters audiences being older and probably not understanding, and that we should write for them.

Yeah, I know, it was a bad argument. And shockingly, my critique didn’t go over so well. Our discussion quickly devolved into an uh-huh/nuh-uh type battle. Before we got that far, though, the scriptwriting student threw out Transpotting as an example of drug-speak and heavy dialect. I thought it worked in the movie, but couldn’t explain why it didn’t work in her scene.

So, am I wiser and more articulate now? Let’s find out. First of all, things happened in Transpotting. Second, the actors were doing things as they talked about it. There’s no need to explain terms when the audience could see it. As far as the accents, yes they were thick. Of course, it wasn’t an American movie, so we weren’t the intended audience. For the intended audience, the accents created an ambiance and told them more about the characters.

I think accents are an important part of some characters. An accent helps the audience learn about a character: era they’re living in, social background, geographic region, education, etc. But accents and dialects are hard to do in prose.

There’s a fine line. I want my dialogue to be authentic, but I also want people to understand what I’m saying. Today, I don’t mind throwing in words that the audience might not know right away…as long as it is explained and adds to the story rather than confuses it.

Admittedly, this isn’t easy to do.

Clarissa Draper tackles accents in this post of Listen to the Voices. I’m not sure how I feel about “write in proper English but add ‘she said in a strong Russian accent’.” Sure “Natasha said in a Russian accent” is a good blanket way to give your readers an idea of how the dialogue should sound, but it feels like cheating. And while I didn’t think her Steinbeck example was particularly horrendous, I agree that writing phonetical pronounciations gets tedious (although, I love droppin’ my ‘g’s).

In War and Peace*, Tolstoy covered it every which-way.

“It is for the reasson, my goot sir,” said he, speaking with a German accent, “for the reasson zat ze Emperor knows zat. He declares in ze manifessto zat he cannot fiew wiz indifference ze danger vreatening Russia and zat ze safety and dignity of ze Empire as vell as ze sanctity of its alliances…” he spoke this last word with particular emphasis as if in it lay the gist of the matter.

“Ve must vight to the last tr-r-op of our plood!” said the colonel, thumping the table; “and ve must tie for our Emperor, and zen all vill pe vell. And ve must discuss it as little as po-o-ossible”…

It took me a few minutes to realize that ‘plood’ was actually ‘blood.’ Did it take me out of the story? Um, yeah. Did it add to my understanding of the character? Only if I was supposed to understand that no one else in the room could understand him nor wanted to talk to him.

Obviously, this was an example of excess. One or two ‘v’s and I’d get the point. Clarissa and I very much agree here. I would have been happy if Tolstoy (or his translator) had just stuck to “he said with a German accent.”

Too much accent gets tiring and confusing, but writing good dialogue for a character with an accent is more than just spelling ‘you’ as the phonetic ‘ya.’ It’s using ‘reckon’ instead of ‘think.’

  • “I reckon,” she said.
  • “I think so,” he said.
  • “I suppose we should,” she said.

Don’t you get three different images of the people who are, essentially, saying the same thing?

As a writer, there’s a lot of listening involved. You have to find the essence and pull that forward by using words associated with your character’s language/age/region (admittedly, this might not have worked for W&P since I have no idea what 20th century Russians considered tell-tale German words).

So all of this is a long winded way of saying that I think of dialogue as another tool to help describe my character. Below are a few snippets of dialogue that I believe illustrate my point.

Where do you think the characters who said these lines are from?**

  • “These here is my daughters, Mildred and Martha. They’s momma’s dead, too. I got two other daughters, they live in [xxx], married.”
  • “If the soldiers get me I’m looking at three years – more if some polisman’s wee lassie kills herself on E the week I go to trial…”

And what can you gather about these characters from these snippets of dialogue?**

  • “Fetch her back! I can’t be alone with a gentleman caller!”
  • “I would not have had that happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.”

*For those of you anxious to know, my reading is lagging a bit. I’m only 600+ screens in.

**Dialogue answers are in the first comment.

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2 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: Putting the emphasis on the right syllable

  1. “These here is my daughters, Mildred and Martha. They’s momma’s dead, too. I got two other daughters, they live in Biloxi, married.” Mr. Hilburn in “Jewel” by Bret Lott, Mississippi, USA

    “If the soldiers get me I’m looking at three years – more if some polisman’s wee lassie kills herself on E the week I go to trial…” Les in “The Cutting Room” by Louise Welsh, Glasgow, Scotland

    “Fetch her back! I can’t be alone with a gentleman caller!” Mrs. Clement (slave-owner, Civil War era), “March” by Geraldine Brooks

    “I would not have had that happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris

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