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Dialogue in Speculative Fiction: When Space Bugz Speakie Funnie and Other Problems
by Paula Fleming

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

By its nature, dialogue is contrived. We don't want to write the way people really talk. Just read a court transcript sometime. Real speech is full of ums and ers, backtracking and repetition, and telling people things they already know. However, we do want to give the impression of how people really talk. So we make liberal use of sentence fragments and comma splices, idiomatic and clichéd phrases, as well as intentional misspellings that indicate region, ethnicity, or class.

When we write dialogue for non-humans or humans not of our time and place (hereafter collectively called "aliens," for simplicity's sake), we must surmount an additional challenge. We want our characters to "sound" alien or foreign, but we also want our readers to understand the dialogue without too much work.

Bad Examples

Let's look at some examples of bad SF/fantasy dialogue. I made these up, but you can have fun and sharpen your "ear" for dialogue by finding similar examples. You sometimes can find problematic dialogue in professionally published work, but you're most likely to find it in e-zines that don't pay their authors. If you're in a writers' group, look for problem dialogue in the drafts submitted for critique. And, of course, take a hard look at the dialogue in your own work!

Kneeling Elk dismounted. "I am being honored greeting you," he said in his native tongue. "You have been sitting many long time?" I was glad I'd lived with his people and had learned the language.

In his native tongue, which our narrator claims to understand well, Kneeling Elk is undoubtedly more fluent than he appears here. Fortunately, English is a flexible language that can, even in translation, capture cultural nuances. Thus, the fact that Kneeling Elk is "honored" rather than "pleased" or "happy" or just, like, "Hey, man! Whassup?" tells us something.

We have another opportunity with "many long time." "Many moons" and "many turnings of the sun" are clichéd, but let's say our characters are meeting next to a stream in the autumn. Then, to give us a sense of how his culture perceives the passage of time, we might have him say, "Have you seen many leaves float past?" Or a different cultural clue would be given by, "Have you had to eat alone?"

Brzzzt crawled closer. I could feel her carrion-laced breath on my face. "Zzz zzzzz zz z z z zzzzzzz!" She wanted me to follow her.

If this is all that Brzzzt says in this story, the Z approach may be okay. In a humorous story, it may even add something. However, if Brzzzt is a talkative giant fly, do we really want to read through lines of Zs followed by echoes in English? Brzzzt buzzes -- just tell me that she buzzes, or have us hear a buzzing fly-to-fly conversation going on in the background somewhere. Then give the rest to me in translation.

Altheor knelt at Princess O'Sopretty's feet and touched his lips to the silver embroidery on the hem of her green silk gown. "Would that I deservéd but the merest whisper of thine sweet breath upon mine ear." She leaned forward, cupped his unshaven chin in her dainty palm, and lifted his face towards hers. "Nay, lady!" He sprang back. "Your lips do tempt mine, but my lips may not have such commerce as they desireth, for at the feast tonight, your father did serve of the garlic most abundantly, and my breath be most foul."

It's not unusual for authors attempting high fantasy to put high-falutin' words in their characters' mouths, in the mistaken notion that such dialogue will impart a majesty to their characters and setting.

"But Tolkien does it!" True: J.R.R. Tolkien does use such language, sparingly, when regal characters are in the most formal or grave of circumstances. And Tolkien had a background in linguistics and knew what he was doing. As a rule, don't try to write in the English of the Bible or of Shakespeare unless you can write it to that standard. And even then, don't overdo it.

How to Do Better

That last advice -- don't overdo it -- is really the key to alien dialogue. We need to trust our readers to understand that, although they're reading the story in contemporary English, the characters are speaking something else. If concerned about whether our dialogue is over the top, a good question to ask ourselves is: If my story were set today in Mexico City, and my characters were sitting around after dinner discussing what to do next (in Spanish), would I be "enhancing" their dialogue as much?

C.J. Cherryh does an excellent job of conveying the sense of a different language, and the entire culture and social relationships that come with it, in her "atevi" novels, and she does so with a very light touch. A sprinkling of "untranslatable" words, variations of characters' names in more familiar or more formal forms, and the occasional shift to the impersonal "one" rather than "you" -- these combine to let us know the characters are speaking a very different language, without reducing readability.

Find Out More...

Writing-World.com: Writing Dynamic Dialogue

Helpful Sites:

Writing Dialect: It's in the Rhythm, by Cameron Michaels,
Focuses on regional and immigrant American dialects

Copyright © 2003 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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