Friday, March 11, 2011

Attention, Certain Novelists

You know who you are.  (Or, at the very least, you will.)

When I read a book in which the heroine has a three-and-a-half-year-old little girl, I don't think it's too much to expect that said little girl actually talks like she's three-and-a-half.

I don't expect to see concise and precise sentence structure.

I certainly don't expect a child of that age to know exactly the right words to say, much less have great syntax.

And I'm quite sure that most small children that age have certain, frequently-used words that sound like they've been completely mangled, but the intent is there.

I have four-year-old twins.  Granted, they had some pretty strong developmental delays, but after a year of therapy, the older twin's language took off.  She soon surpassed her older sister.  And yet, at age 3, her duckie was still her "guckie," and about half the L sounds in her words were pronounced as Ys.  The younger twin's L sounds were all Ys, and sometimes it seemed they had a language all their own.

Now, I have no doubt that there are precocious three-and-a-half-year-olds, who can speak in perfect (or near-perfect) sentences.  My mother tells me that I was correcting older kids' grammar at that age.  But she also told me how, at nearly that same age, I was mangling my own last name for about a week.

In the novel I read the other day (I'm withholding names to protect the guilty), the heroine's three-and-a-half-year-old never spoke a word of flubbed English.

There was not a thing in that book to suggest that the child in question had a superior intellect or understanding of grammar and syntax.  Yes, the child "spoke" in simple sentences.  Seven or eight words, tops. But there wasn't a single word in there that indicated this kid was three.  There wasn't a single hint that this little girl was exceptionally bright and thus was going to have this kind of grammatical tendencies.  There wasn't a nugget of information that showed that the mother had such language skills to have passed them down to her daughter, even just by being within the child's realm.

In other words, this little girl acted like she was five, not a year and a half younger.

It was seriously unbelievable.

It rendered the story itself unbelievable.

I've taken some writing courses.  One thing I remember in particular:  Don't bump your reader.  Don't put something in there that will serve as a speedbump to your reader, make them have to slow down, stop, go back, re-read, break concentration, or have to do a double-take.  The bumps aren't worth it, generally speaking.  You want the reader to keep going, keep reading, and not have to go back and figure out what you just meant.  The reader loses momentum...and at that moment, you risk losing the reader's interest entirely.  If the story is barely at par to begin with, a serious bump can have the reader tossing the book aside in disgust.  That can translate into bad peer reviews to friends ("Oh, you don't want to read that; she's a terrible author"), and thus less books sold, and thus less see how it goes.

And I can tell you, every time that child spoke in that novel, it was a bump.  Her vocabulary and sentence structure and even her phraseology just did not fit with who the author had told me this little girl was.  She was far too well-spoken, in my opinion, for the average three-and-a-half-year-old child.  It just jarred.  It didn't fit.

I remember reading through a friend's manuscript-in-progress.  I mentioned to him an inconsistency that I saw.  One character in particular was a very stuffed-shirt kind of guy.  He never used a nickname for anyone.  Not his wife, not his son.  He rarely used contractions when he spoke.  He was very precise.  My friend had used an abbreviated form of the character's name in a dialogue tag.  I told him, "This is a bump.  Your character is so buttoned-up that even your dialogue tags need to be in congruence with his dialogue.  Use his full name.  It'll sound better."  He thought about that for awhile and had to agree.  That seems like such a little thing, to use a shortened-form of a character's name rather than the full name.  To me, and picky readers everywhere, it would make a world of difference.  The story would flow, and there wouldn't even be that "wait, what?" mental hiccup as the reader tried to digest why such a formally-spoken character would have such an informal dialogue tag.  It wouldn't be much of a mental hiccup, but it would be there.

The little girl's speech patterns, as written, reminded me very much of one of Mark Twain's rules regarding the written word: "Use the right word, not its second cousin."

The irony does not escape me that, three and a half years ago, the dialogue of this small child probably wouldn't have struck me as odd.

Having lived the dialogue of three children of that age, in rapid succession (Large Fry is only 16 months older than the twins), it now rings hollow.

Then again, I suppose not everyone's ear for the written word holds three-year-old gibberish along the lines of fyip-fyops with as much endearment as mine does.

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