Thursday, October 17, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #193: Ignore the Dialect, Master the Syntax

We’ve talked before about the danger of writing street slang: you don’t want to sound racist or judgmental, but you know that you can’t use the Queen’s English and sound authentic. In that earlier post, I talked about the importance of giving each character within the setting a unique voice, which is essential, but this time let’s talk about the dialogue itself, and how to include cultural signifiers that don’t sound insulting.

If you’re white and writing black street slang, the danger is that you’re going to be tempted to write something like “I ain’t goin’ to no jail, you got dat?” That sounds awful, of course, and one reason is that it’s based on how it would sound to you, and not on how the speaker would choose to say that.

Instead, on “The Wire”, we get, “I don’t plan on knowing shit about jail, you feel me?” This is the difference between dialect and syntax. In the “Wire” version, other than the expletive, it’s normal English, except with a different syntax. There’s no need to drop the “g” in “knowing”, because the unique syntax makes it inevitable that the line will be read in a certain way.

To go with another example from that series, a white writer’s first instinct might be to write, “Dat’s true”, but that sounds inauthentic, and reads as if the writer is judging the speaker. “True that,” conveys the same cultural connotation in a way that more authentic, sounds more respectful, and has more personality.

You don’t want to say, “Hey this character wouldn’t use the my kind of English, so I’ll have them use my kind of English poorly, with abbreviations, mispronunciations and grammatical errors.” Subcultures don’t try to use your syntax and fail, they develop parallel systems of syntax and they obey those rules as much as Oxford dons obey theirs.

With working class British dialogue, in a situation where we would say “That’s right,” the first instinct of an American writer is to have a British character say “’at’s right!”, because that’s how it would sound to us if they tried to say it the same way. But you need not resort to dialect if you focus on their syntax: If you want it to “sound British” on the page, then have the Brit say “Too right” instead. You don’t need to indicate a British pronunciation, because you’re using an inherently British phrase.

Let’s look at the southern/western dialogue used by Charles Portis for his novel “True Grit”, (dialogue that the Coen brothers transcribed wholesale for their adaptation) Far too many Westerns would include a clichéd line like “He wuz a lyin’ sack a’trash!” but Portis uses the far more authentic-sounding and delightful, “There is trash for you.”  Too many writer associate “southern” or “western” with a lazy drawl, but Portis knew how to capture the unique syntax respectfully, without casting aspersions on the character of the speakers.


j.s. said...

The thing about Charles Portis' dialogue in TRUE GRIT and the great dialogue on THE WIRE is that it's all about voice. If you get inside the heads of your characters, you're always going to be closer to an authentic and idiosyncratic syntax. And you won't have to invent one from the outside in.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Excellent reminder.

Also, the syntax people use will likely vary with different social environments. If you don't have characters "code switch" in appropriate situations, it may come across as weird or tone-deaf.

As a bonus, if you have a scene where some characters "code switch" while others don't, that will tell the audience a lot about the people in that scene without being overt.

Matt Bird said...

Great link!

Parker said...

This is something YA writers have to think about too. There's always the danger of using teen slang that will be outdated by the time your writing gets to publication (or by the time your movie gets made). It works better to capture the creative spirit of teenspeak rather than the exact words teens are using this month. The movie Ten Things I Hate About You did this well, IMO. I'm not sure I can imagine teens actually uttering those lines, but there's a playfulness that *feels* like teen dialog. And yeah, the syntax feels authentic