With an Ear for the Reader, Understand the Value of Contractions for Realism in Dialogue
A major hindrance to realistic dialogue is the inability to recognize the value of contractions to enable fluency. Dialogue quickly becomes stilted due to the non-use of contractions, and the narrative tends to read like dissertation material or a legal brief. Unless the character is not familiar with spoken English, or if the writer wishes to create and maintain an accent, when constructing dialogue it is generally advisable to use contractions whenever possible.
Early on, we Learn to Avoid Writing Dialogue Like People Actually Speak
Related to dialogue and creative writing, from the first sentence of the initial lecture we attend or book we read, the adage is the same: for dialogue to work, it must not be written in the exact way we speak; conversely, dialogue normally would not be spoken in the same syntax in which it is written. Unfortunately, this is a difficult element to comprehend for a lot of writers, and poorly conceived dialogue knocks out manuscripts quicker in the eyes of many agents and publishers than any other factor.
Read the Line Fast, first Without and then With the Contraction(s)
If a writer reads the line of dialogue fast–first without a contraction(s) and then with–and applies the intended inflection along the way, a good sense of pitch can be ascertained. When multiple contractions are a possibility in a sentence, this “fast read technique” not only helps to determine if contractions will benefit the dialogue, but where, since many times a contraction works well in the first spit of dialogue, but not later in the same sentence–or vice versa. This of course also applies to exposition, but the evil non-contraction as a contributor to stilted rhetoric tends to be more marked in dialogue, and, as stated, imminent death for a manuscript.
It’s all About Pitch
Most people have a favorite author or two they like to read purely for pleasure. If we ask why, we’re generally told it’s because those writers are easy to read. Pick up someone’s work you enjoy relaxing with, and start parsing just the dialogue out loud. (After I wrote this line, I pulled down books by Barbara Kingsolver, Larry McMurtry, and Colleen McCullough to support my point.) You won’t have to search for the contractions; they’ll find you. Now take a sentence and read it instead with two-word substitutes for the contraction(s), paying attention solely to the new pitch of that sentence. I don’t have to guess if there was a negative impact, and in many instances I imagine it was profound.
Good writing happens for a reason, and the proper utilization of contractions in dialogue is a powerful stepping-stone to improving prose writing skills.
Robert L. Bacon is the Founder of The Perfect Write(TM) theperfectwrite.com
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