Thoughts on dialogue

Dec 6, 2016

I’ve blogged before on some of the differences between sci-fi and fantasy. There are many of course, not least the source material itself and the sorts of rules and ‘laws’ which govern the two genres. There is overlap too, both deal with the ‘fantastic’ and pushing the boundaries of the imagination.

I’ve majored on SF to date, with my current WIP Lords of Midnight being my first major foray into the realm of fantasy. To squirrel down on the genre a little more, this is a form of ‘High Fantasy’, involving, as it does, the affairs of an imaginary world, featuring creatures and races native to that world. They are similar, but very different from our own.

Part of the tone of any story is the dialogue, the prose which the characters use to communicate with each other (and tell the story to the reader). In SF this is typically not so much of an issue unless too much techno-babble is employed, or a large number of conspicuously made up words are introduced.

In fantasy there is a tenancy towards ‘epic-ness’. Characters may strike a rather old-fashioned, perhaps even ponderous, tone in their style of speech, with the author hoping that lends a sense of occasion to the proceedings. Often characters will avoid contradictions (e.g. saying “can not” rather than “can’t”). Less familiar words such as “Verily” or “Yonder” may be employed. This may give a flavour, but unless you know what you’re doing it can come across as rather false and stilted, particularly to more modern readers.

Some of this depends on the ever changing arcs of fashion, with prose styles falling in and out of vogue depending on the views of fantasy panelists or reviewers.

It has also been argued that you can either write as if you are listening into to a conversion in that world, in which case employ the style of that world (medieval or otherwise), or you can argue that you are transcribing the dialogue for your reader, thus you should write in plain english. Is Shakespeare ‘best’ in the original prose, or a modern translation? It depends on your definition of ‘best’.

There’s also the problem of being true to source material. Take the Lords of Midnight  as an example. Here is a piece of dialogue uttered (said?) by a character from the second original novella “Doomdark’s Revenge”.

“I bid you welcome, sir, to the Forest of Dreams. Will you not tarry a while? ‘Tis a long and lonely road you follow.”

Now that piece is attributed to a young Fey girl, her age unknown, but assumed to be 18 or thereabouts. Clearly that’s not how a contemporary piece of dialogue would look for a teenage girl. That would be something like this…

“Yo wassup, you in m’forest man! Hanging out here? Where you been?”

Yes. I’m kidding. 😉 Straight forward English would be something like…

“Welcome to the Forest of Dreams, sir. Will you stay for a while? You’ve had a long and lonely journey.”

It’s the same message, but it lacks the sense of being in a feudal or medieval world and feels too ‘modern’. The trouble is, writing dialogue as in the previous example is rather long-winded and is fraught with the risk of ‘over-cooking’ it and may alienate some readers. Of course, if the readership expects that dialogue, they may be disappointed by the characters not speaking in the fashion to which they’re accustomed. Something of a catch-22.

For Lords of Midnight, I’m trying to tread a middle ground. The dialogue will have a little ‘epic-ness’ where I think it adds to a character’s personality and standing, or helps to drive the tension in a scene. By contrast, I will avoid ‘epic-ness’ when I deem it is unnecessary. My approach on these things, rather like description, is to use it as a garnish in the cooking, rather than mixing in great dollops of it, hoping the recipe works at the end.

It’s a difficult choice, but one the writer has to make on behalf of the reader. Needless to say I’ve given it some serious consideration for Lords of Midnight, conscious of both a traditional and modern readership.

It’s not at all easy, forsooth. 😉


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