I realised recently that my standard conversation in any take-away always goes something like this:
“Hi, I’ll have a Super Glob Burger, hold the ketchup thanks.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.”
“Could you repeat that please?”
“WAN–CHI – WI – THA?”
“You mean, do I want chips with that? Yes please.”
What does that tell us about writing? First point is that it’s obvious who was speaking – all without a single “I said”, “he said”, or anything else.
More crucial is the mis-spelling. I did that deliberately. What impression does it give of setting and character? A bored burger slider? Background clatter? Me having trouble figuring it out? All of the above? I didn’t say – and that’s important, because it makes the reader think. However, mis-spelling is a trick authors should use only sparsely. One line of mangled dialogue is enough get the message across. More – and it gets hard to read, even boring.
The same applies for any other speech quirk. It’s possible, for instance, to represent a speech impediment or accent by mis-spelling, but there’s a fine line between making the story hard to read – or being patronising or offensive. If done well it can be great. Madeleine l’Engle used it in A Wrinkle In Time – wonderfully – to convey reverberation in the voices of the guardian angels. However, few of us have l’Engle’s skills as a writer. Get the balance wrong, and it can be the kiss of death.
My rule of thumb is not to be too explicit – make clear the speaker has vocal quirks, but do it through choice of words, through expressing emotions, frustrations or how others react.
Story telling is all about conveying emotion – and about making readers work for the reward.
As for the end of the fast food story? I got chips and handed over $5.90. I knew it was $5.90 because I got $4.10 change for my $10.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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