In the past week I've begun to read two books. I never finished either of them.
The first, an historical novel written in 1976 by a famed and multi award winning Australian writer, the second, a recent publication and fourth book by an Australian writer. Both lost me almost at the first quotation mark because the dialogue lacked credibility.
With the first book there is dialogue on the second page between two Tasmanian Aboriginals pre-European settlement, written as spoken in articulate high-educated English. Although the unnaturalness of this jarred, I accepted it as one might accept a translation from an unknown language, squirming a little as the speculative speech between these proud people was reduced to class-valued interpretation. Two pages over, when the daughter of the former was speaking, the dialogue had been written in the worst interpretation of pidgin English I’ve ever read, making an intelligent woman sound like a complete simpleton. At this point I found I could not take the book seriously. I felt insulted on behalf of the historical figure being portrayed and embarrassed for the writer despite her fame. I closed the book.
The second book, also speculative non-fiction of early Tasmanian history, had been extensively researched. It had a strong story line that stood out above the telling rather than showing narrative, but the dialogue was, for the most part, quite unbelievable for the era and setting. There was also an issue with consistency, i.e. in one string of dialogue, ‘here’, is written with a dropped aitch (‘ere), two lines down the aitch is pronounced, then the same word is misspelt as, ‘ear, in the next. Dialogue, as an extension of characters, needs to be above all true and consistent. What really stood out for me in this book though, was the phrase, ‘man up’, which has been around for less than a decade, suddenly thrown in as dialogue between characters. At this point I lost interest in reading further, conceding that, while I’d wasted money in buying this book, I didn’t have to waste time in reading it.
There are many aspects to writing dialogue if it is to be believable and, when used well, it is an excellent technique for injecting needed breaks into numerous action scenes, long narrative and/or descriptive passages. Unfortunately, writing realistic dialogue proves to be one of the most difficult aspects of the creative writing process for some writers and without this, readers can quickly lose interest as such false notes often distract from the essence of the story.
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