Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Some Notes on Regional Dialog

For readers who are not familiar with working class locutions of South Boston. the works of two writers, one dead since 1999, will convince them they are hearing what Thomas Moore once referred to as "The harp that once through Tara's halls/The soul of music shed."

If not outright impossible to think so, it will be a least improbable for readers of George V. Higgins (1939-99) [The Friends of Eddie Coyle] or Dennis Lehane [Gone, Baby, Gone; Mystic River] to hear anything less than authentic cadences and tropes.

For readers of Elmore Leonard [Fifty-two Pick-up; Get Shorty], it is a given that if people want to work a scam, pull a heist, or stage some more complicated mischief, you have to talk the way Leonard's characters do in order to have a chance that your wild schemes will pay off.

If your reading tastes turn at all to the novels of Donald E. Westlake in any of his multifarious pseudonyms, you are probably convinced that Westlake has hidden microphones extending throughout the underworld, extending into places that are considering entry into the underworld.

And of course your latest assumption would be that Richard Price, particularly in his remarkable new Lush Life has similarly nailed the street authenticity of the Lower East Side.

These examples are only males, writing mostly in the crime/suspense/noir genera; Annie Proulx makes you believe you know the patois of Newfoundland and, for that matter, Wyoming; Edith Wharton will convince you she "heard" the chatter of the Manhattan upper echelons, and those delightful ladies from the South, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, get you convinced you are hearing Southern as it is spoke.

The fact is, all of these were and some still are excellent creators of the necessary element of dialog, not conversation but dramatic speech that reflects simultaneously character and story. 

 Each of the named examples has some experience wherein and whereof he or she may write, but each has also learned how to compress, sketch in, evoke, use irony, repetition, and a distinctive originality that makes the result appear to be authentic when it is nothing of the sort, it is what it sets out to be, dialogue, which is by nature dramatic.

The difference between these exemplary dialogists and such remarkable others as Tim Gatreaux, Charles D'Ambrosio, Jhumpa Lahire, and Junot Diaz make it seem all too easy to attempt to pick up an accent or a mannerism here or there and be perceived as authentic. 

 This is one reason why so many American writers fail so miserably, old chap, in writing English characters who are believably English, making it a near irony that English novelists have a better sense for the way dramatic American English sounds.

The trick, the real trick, the one beyond listening to the characters is to start by listening to what the characters want or do not want to happen, then to listen with all one's might to something that goes beyond an accent--listen to the story.


R.L. Bourges said...

dramatic speech summarizes it well for me - words as things happening between the characters

Anonymous said...

I have always believed that it is the characters that craft the story, despite their lack of cooperation at times, and the writer is simply the vehicle by which they make the story heard. Which is not to say that the writer does not at times have to poke, prod, plead or otherwise take drastic measures to get them to converse.