We are so often instructed not to write dialogue or narration that mimics the way that people actually speak, and there is a good deal of useful truth to this advice. Taken verbatim, much of what we hear and say in regular conversation cannot or should not find its way into our creative writing, as it tends to be dull, confusing, overly offensive, or wholly unessential to whatever it is we are trying to express.
Anyone who has transcribed a tape-recorded interview knows this problem firsthand. I discovered it for myself as a graduate student, several days after an oral history interview I’d conducted with an elderly, Italian-American barber in the meeting room of a union office in Milwaukee. The transcript was coming due for the project I was on, and I committed a slice of time one Sunday evening to what I thought would be a relatively simple task. After all, the interview had gone well and my notes were in order. Our discussion had been substantive and even lively at times. And since I was able to frame my questions based on prior knowledge of the trade that I had gleaned from my father, who was also a barber, the man and I had relaxed into a natural rapport almost straight away.
So on that Sunday at my apartment, I sat down at the computer and pushed “play” on my Marantz field recorder. And for the next ten or twelve hours, I stopped and replayed portions of the oral history tapes over and again in an effort to accurately transcribe all of the false starts, cryptic meanderings, and under-the-breath mumblings that both interviewer and interviewee committed. When I finally shambled into the history department offices the next day with the finished transcript in hand, I was so exhausted from the past night’s effort that I was physically ill. I handed it in, walked back home, and spent the rest of the day in bed.
But as it turned out, my earlier instincts were correct: It was a good oral history interview in terms of the breadth and scope of material we covered in our session. My ordeal with transcribing it was a completely different experience, of course, but only because it laid bare the simple fact that verbatim oral conversations are meant to be heard—they don’t often read well on paper.
This proved a valuable lesson to me, though I didn’t realize its worth until much later. As writers, we use dialogue and first-person narrative in our work all of the time. And if we pass our stories around to trusted readers as part of the revision process, we learn rather quickly to edit out small-talk between characters—the “How are you?” / “Fine, thanks” exchanges that clutter the pages and kill momentum. Likewise, if we choose to include those “uh…” and “oh…” verbal pauses so common to everyday talk, we find we’d better have a compelling reason for it.
In short, we learn the importance of economy. In terms of dialogue and narration, this means leaving out most of the jibber-jabber that we ordinarily utter or hear in real life.
Then again there are exceptions to every standard. And as we know, the craft of writing is full of such exceptions. In some of Ernest Hemingway’s best work, for example, the small-talk exchanges that one might normally discard are often bubbles on the surface of something coming gradually to a boil. In his short story, “The Killers,” two men wearing identical overcoats and derby hats walk into a small-town diner where Nick Adams, George, and Sam the short-order cook are working. It is nearing suppertime, and the two strangers take their seats at the counter.
“What’s yours?” George asked them.
“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”
“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
In most cases, this dialogue passage might easily be removed from the text as repetitious, unnecessary jibber-jabber. But Hemingway’s inclusion of this brief, three-way exchange at the beginning provides readers with a clever, if somewhat cryptic, foreshadowing of things to come. Al and Max are unsure of what they want to order precisely because eating is not their actual reason for showing up. The strangers are in fact big-city gangsters, hit men. They are looking for a local Swede and former heavyweight boxer named Ole Andreson, who at some time in his past had double-crossed the mob. Al and Max already know that the big Swede frequents the diner for his supper, and they mean to intercept him there and shoot him.
But this is not yet revealed in the story, and the small talk continues between the hoods and the young men who work at the diner. Only now the two strangers evince a more menacing edge, especially after their original orders cannot be filled because it isn’t yet six o’clock—the time when the menu changes from lunch to dinner.
“Got anything to drink?” Al asked.
“Silver beer, bevo, ginger-ale,” George said.
“I mean you got anything to drink?”
“Just those I said.”
“This is a hot town,” said the other. “What do they call it?”
“Ever hear of it?” Al asked his friend.
“No,” said the friend.
“What do they do here nights?” Al asked.
“They eat the dinner,” his friend said. “They all come here and eat the big dinner.”
“That’s right,” George said.
“So you think that’s right?” Al asked George.
“You’re a pretty bright boy, aren’t you?”
“Sure,” said George.
“Well you’re not,” said the other man. “Is he, Al?”
“He’s dumb,” said Al. He turned to Nick. “What’s your name?”
“Another bright boy,” Al said. “Ain’t he a bright boy, Max?”
“The town’s full of bright boys,” Max said.
Again, most of this dialogue could be considered superfluous, sufficient even to warrant rejection from a modern literary journal or magazine. But when considered in light of the rising action, the underlying belligerence in the small talk heightens dramatic tension, leading readers to the point where the hoods finally pull out their weapons and take over the diner.
Another mode of dialogue or narrative that can either enhance or hinder a piece of creative writing is vernacular, which might include specific geographic or cultural dialects, or simply the everyday manner of communication among “common” people. Of course, vernacular can be utilized in a pejorative manner, with the effect of parodying or belittling people of lesser means or those from unfamiliar cultures. As we all know, there has been far too much of this type of thing in the past, and it goes without saying that writers of today are well-advised to ply their craft in a more enlightened, conscientious manner going forward.
However, differences in speech, when presented judiciously, can be both entertaining and memorable. What is more, they can add layers of meaning to a particular character, which can only enrich a story.
One American author who made his mark with the clever use of vernacular is Ring Lardner, who began his career as a sports writer in the first years of the twentieth century. A friend and contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lardner also wrote fiction, particularly humorous stories, beginning with his 1916 book, You Know Me Al, which is a collection of fictional letters home from a “bush league” baseball player named Jack Keefe. In this book and subsequent publications, Lardner perfectly captures the language of common Americans of the time, even though he does so with narrative more often than dialogue. The letters in You Know Me Al, for example, are endearing for their abundance of colloquial expressions, misspellings, unlikely verb usage, and the noticeable shortage of punctuation. In one letter, Jack tells his hometown friend Al about an altercation he’d had on the road over a late-night poker game:
I had a run in with Kelly last night and it looked like I would have to take a wallop at him but the other boys separated us. He is a bush outfielder from the New England league….I was having pretty good luck and was about four bucks to the good and I was tired and sleepy. Then Kelly opened the pot for fifty cents and I stayed. I had three sevens. No one else stayed. Kelly stood pat and I drawed two cards. And I catched my fourth seven. He bet fifty cents but I felt pretty safe even if he did have a pat hand. So I called him. I took the money and told them I was through.
Lord and some of the boys laughed but Kelly got nasty and begun to pan me for quitting and for the way I played. I says Well I won the pot didn’t I? He says yes and called me something. I says I got a notion to take a punch at you.
He says Oh you have have you? And I come back at him. I says Yes I have have I? I would of busted his jaw if they hadn’t stopped me. You know me Al.
And then there’s profanity—another double-edged sword. Some authors have no use for swear words or crude expressions in their work, and their commitment to this standard is to be understood and respected. However, other writers, including myself, have no real problem with profanity in literature, per se. For my own taste as both a writer and a reader, however, I prefer that such language is used only when it is deemed absolutely necessary—either as a means to flesh out a character’s personality or background, or to portray a social situation where profanity is the norm. Like any other literary annoyance, the deployment too many F-bombs and bodily references can ruin an otherwise good read.
Two examples of what I consider well-placed profanity are found in Junot Diaz’s gritty, acclaimed 1999 short story, “Nilda”; and in Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel, A Long Long Way, which is set during World War I. And just as I might forewarn the presence of a spoiler, I should like to announce here that the following passages contain crudity and tasteless epithets.
So be informed: There is nasty talk ahead. Turn back now if you do not want to read it.
In the Diaz story, the title character, a young Hispanic girl, is involved with a much older man in the neighborhood. Nilda’s longtime friend, Yunior, the retrospective first-person narrator of the story, was secretly in love with her, and makes no bones about the enmity he felt toward this man in Nilda’s life:
Motherfucker was like three hundred years old, but because he had a car and a record collection and photo albums from his Vietnam days and because he bought her clothes to replace the old shit she was wearing, Nilda was all lost on him …. I used to ask her, What’s up with Wrinkle Dick? And she would get so mad she wouldn’t speak to me for days, and then I’d get this note, I want you to respect my man. Whatever, I’d write back.
This is the milieu of the inner-city streets, and Junot Diaz writes in the vernacular of the culture in which he grew up. If you have not had the chance to read “Nilda” or the other works of this author, I encourage it. His stories are at once gripping, laugh-out-loud funny, and heartrendingly serious.
One of the supporting characters in Sebastian Barry’s, A Long Long Way, is Christy Moran, an irascible but equally lovable sergeant-major of an Irish platoon fighting on the Western Front. Moran raises vulgarity to the level of art, stringing profanities together in lengthy rants like a waterfront poet. Often—to the men’s amusement and the officers’ mortification—he’s merely thinking out loud and isn’t aware he’s doing it. One evening, when the men emerge from the trench to repair gaps in the barbed-wire barrier separating them from the German position, Moran slices his thumb on a barb and lets loose a tirade that draws the attention of their new captain.
“The fucking cunting thing is after biting the thumb off me,” he said, “the fucking bastarding cunting piece of English shite.”
…. “Quiet, quiet. Do you not speak any Irish, Sergeant-Major?” said Captain Pasley in a friendly way.
“I don’t fucking speak Irish, sir, I don’t even fucking speak English.”
Similar examples of Moran’s colorful dialogue fill the novel. But to simply leave it at this would not suffice to round out the man’s character. Sebastian Barry further deepens the personality of Christy Moran by introducing a softer side to the gruff-and-gristle career soldier, and the contrast is powerful. The same man who, in battle, will bayonet a German or smash his head with a mallet longs to sing “The Minstrel Boy” to his fellows, but is fearful of doing so because of his “croaky tones.” And, while the other men talk of Belgian whores and venal desires, the sergeant-major, in a stunning verbal turnabout, waxes how it’s “a nice enough thing to meet a girl and go and have a cup of tea at the Monument Creamery, and try not to talk with curses, and working up to a decent kiss at some point in the proceedings.”
The decision to utilize small-talk, vernacular, and profanity in writing is an individual author’s call. There are prudent guidelines over what might be considered “appropriate” for present-day literature, but exceptions always come into play—as the last two examples show. And while it is perhaps best to bear in mind architect Mies van der Rohe’s maxim, “less is more,” even that is often thrown out, and often for compelling reasons. In the end, we can probably agree that balance is a key consideration, as well an author’s willingness to push the parameters of convention when they deem it fitting.
And last but certainly not least, we must keep in mind our potential readers, for they are the final arbiters. But we must do so not out of fear of offending, but instead with respect for their desire to engage in an entertaining reading experience. And at the same time, we must also acknowledge that they have entrusted us, the writers, with the task of providing that experience to the very best of our ability and judgment.