30 facets of the spoken word in fiction

I have chosen spoken word, because dialogue is too limiting. In fiction, all the words are either out of speech marks or not.This can be either monologue or dialogue, but most cases will apply to dialogue. And today we’re looking at language within speech marks .

1. Lexicon

That’s vocabulary to you and me. It can be influenced by a variety of things; family, beliefs, age, class, gender and race. This is one of the most essential building blocks of people’s speech, because it varies between where you live and how you’ve been brought up. Your character’s vocabulary will be very personal and unique; no two people talk in quite the same way. Common phrases or contractions are included in this category, such as “tinternet”; a Yorkshire colloquialism for “the internet”.

2. Diction

This is word choice; which is a step up from vocabulary. No two words mean the same thing, even if they are used in the same context; such as fate and destiny, or pink and rose. Why did you choose one word over another? Sometimes, being choosy about the right word to pick can help us think about the type of effect you want to convey. “Blue” is a very broad, whereas “azure” is a lot more precise and is more, well, “creative”. You should only be specific if it’s significant though.

3. Dialogue tags

They’re used to indicate who’s speaking, and are usually used at the start of a conversation if it’s between two people. If it’s between three or more, you might need to use them along with a character’s name – or the narrator if it’s first person –so the reader can keep track. Try not to make them too fancy, otherwise they tend to pull the reader out of the action.

4. Why you should only use ‘said’

It’s tempting but only use “said” and “asked”. Reason? It doesn’t reveal too much; let the reader create some meaning of their own. It can be very tempting to break the status quo with others, but this is quite difficult. You might get away with whispered or called, but only use them occasionally. Dialogue tags other than “said” and “asked” are like condiments; use sparingly

5. Eloquent prose

This might be baroque prose, rhetoric or simply beautiful language being used. It might work better with quirky, intellectual or old-fashioned characters. Otherwise it’s quite hard to pull off. The Victorians and Renaissance poets loved it, because it delivered much passion into the passage. Use sparingly, otherwise it’ll dilute the effect it has on the reader. It’s a spice to, well, ‘spice’ up your fiction.

6. Slang

Obviously this depends on age and social background of your character(s), but it’s considered informal. It tends to either informal or euphemistic, and is generally used by young people. Common examples include “weed” for cannabis, or “sick” for something that is considered great. Outside its usual context, it tends to be quite baffling. It’s another thing to pepper your prose with, so use wisely.

7. Syntax

This is sentence structure, and tends to include a variety of word order, sentence length, syllables and sometimes paragraph structure. It’s different to morphology, which is concerned with the internal structure of words. Sometimes, grammatical/linguistic structure and meaning go together, but the sentence “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” proves otherwise, because it makes no sense whatsoever. The word which is actually spoken is different to the written word, because there is no gestures, expressions etc., and the two collide in drama. Various literary techniques involving syntax include juxtaposition, rhyming couplets, and rhetoric.

8. Prosaic speech

This is simple speech, that we use in everyday life. Its meaning varies, and can mean anything from dull to blunt. Characters who use prosaic prose are either of a low intellect or tend to be quite forthright; so when they do “beat around the bush” or say something clever, it’s very noticeable. The same applies for characters who normally speak poetically.

9. Subtext

This is words beneath words. What’s being said and what’s being meant. For instance, “I’m busy” usually means “I don’t like you but am too polite to say so” . The trouble with subtext, though, is that it’s usually interpretative. Meaning that it isn’t always easy to discover the ‘true’ meaning.

10. Length

Older novels and plays tend to have characters speaking at length without interruption. More modern fiction tends to have much shorter sentences. The length of the word can indicate the pace and action. For instance, a long sentence would sound like this: “the water danced and flowed over the rocks, glittering under the sun”, creating a poetic, sensual description and mood.

11. If it’s dialogue, it goes in quote marks

Otherwise, it’s Free Indirect Speech, or Interior Monologue. It sounds obvious, but sometimes writers exclude quote marks when reporting speech. This is very difficult to get away with

12. Monologues

Not the same as an interior monologue. Academic lectures, sermons or speeches are a good example. Who might give these monologues? Perhaps a vicar/priest, a professor, a politician, stand-up comedian? Or, they could be orally narrating their story to a scribe, particularly in historical novels. Perhaps a ghost story, or journalistic account?

13. Soliloquies

Not the same as a monologue, since they are usually alone (or think they are). When writing a piece of dramatic script – yes, including film – everything is dialogue. Why? It’s all performed, and there’s definitely no voiceover in a play. In a piece of prose, or narrative poetry, it’s used to mean a character revealing their thoughts, plan (often evil) or emotions. It doesn’t mean the character likes talking to themselves.

14. Sounds

“arghh”, “ugh”, “Ooh”, “Ah!” and various others are just phonetic sounds you make, and they’ve been made into a word. They are more commonly used as Interior Monologue, but can be used in dialogue too.

15. Action tags before dialogue

This is so the emphasis is still on the actual words themselves, and helps to contextualise the sentence. “She smiled ‘Please, come in'” is a good example.

16. The comma

Sometimes you can have a piece of dialogue with a dialogue, and a beat serves as a pause before continuing; “No,” Joe said “a fish is related to a reptile…”. This lets the reader know who is speaking.

17. Two sets of quotation marks

If your character is quoting what another character said in their speech, use ‘ inside “, or vice versa. This is so your reader knows how to distinguish between reported speech, and speech which is already occurring in the plot.

18. Phonetic speech

Eliza in Pygmalion speaks phonetically, because of her thick Cockney accent. Shaw writes how he imagines Eliza might sound in real life, because Higgins is highly interested in dialects. And it emphasizes how difficult it is to misunderstand her. Shaw probably listened to others speaking in real life – and may have had one person in mind – when he wrote his play. Anything that involves

19. Text is also dialogue

As in, an email, IM and text messages. This is because it carries a conversation, unlike a letter or journal entry which is one-way only.

20. On-the-nose dialogue

This is speech that’s too blunt, unnecessary and is thought of as bad writing. my fellow blogger Chuck Wendig uses the example of a man saying; “I cannot love you, elf-lady, because I was once touched in my no-no hole”. Even ‘I’m gay’ sounds better than this. Trust your reader to know what you mean.

21. the trouble with real-life speech is?

Real life conversations tend to be quite boring, and include stuff like “I dunno”, “umm”, and other useless words. All monologue and dialogue is used to further the plot, rather than to fill in space on the page.

22. Punctuation

This goes beyond using full stops, commas, exclamation marks and question marks. Like using grammar, you have to get its usage right in order to be an effective user of English. Also like grammar, you can bend the rules (within reason)

23. It’s no good for riddles

Meaning, nobody asks rhetorical questions out loud. Unless your characters are scholars or wizards having a battle of wits, nobody talks like this – not even eccentrics. If you include riddles, they’re usually in a poetic form or part of something your character might read, rather than say. And the mystical creature who asks riddles is kind of clichéd – like Golem in The Lord of the Rings.

24. Idiosyncracies

Peopke have certain speech patterns that are fairly consistent – even if they have MPD or amnesia. They might have favourite words, a way of pronouncing certain words or a catchphrase. It tends to more obvious with minor characters, because they usually have one strong trait, but it works well for other characters too.

25. Reported speech, or ‘scare quotes’

This is used to for words that are “so-called”, which implies a certain level of sarcasm, irony or scepticism about something or someone. It’s usually used for deliberate – and often humourous – effect, to indicate that either the author or one of the characters doesn’t buy into what’s being said. Be careful of how you use them, as it can say quite a lot about the tone of the

26. Uniquely coined words

Have you coined a phrase which nobody has used before? If so, that’s great! It indicates that you’re being creative with language and that you have original thought – despite what Postmodernists seem to think.

This is when English refers to itself as a language. Basically, it’s a language that describes language. Various examples include “the term “hypnosis” comes from the greek ‘hypnos’ meaning ‘sleep'”. Unless you’re a linguist or extremely academic, it’s not normally necessary.

28. No pun intended

Yeah, right. Anagrams, acronyms, innuendos and various other forms of wordplay might count as a pun. No clichés ( although this sounds easier than it is) and nothing too obscure. Shakespeare is the epitome of puns and wordplay; just read Romeo and Juliet and Othello to see for yourself.

29. Lost in translation

Does your character speak a different language? Have you translated a foreign work? Or do they have a thick accent? If so, your reader might misunderstand your original intentions. You could do this deliberately

30. Grammar

This kind of falls under syntax and wordplay, but it’s quite important. If you as a writer do not have good grammar, your reader won’t be very impressed. Slang and colloquialisms are no exception to the rule either 9 or nit I most cases anyway). Try to use dictionaries and grammar books, rather than just using your Word/ Pages spellchecker.

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