Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dialogue Adds Depth to Setting

I’ve been watching the new USA cable television show “Complications” because it stars Jason O’Mara, who I like. According to the PR about “Complications,” he plays a disillusioned suburban ER doctor who finds his existence transformed when he intervenes in a drive-by shooting, saving a young boy's life and killing one of his attackers. When he learns the boy is still marked for death, he finds himself compelled to save him at any cost and discovers that his life and his outlook on medicine may never be the same.

The show is aptly named as the complications pile up for the doctor as well as other characters. Goals and motivations are pretty well defined as the show hurtles from one episode to the next. So why am I discussing it? Because I think it suffers from a major flaw.

The story is set in Atlanta, Georgia, but the none of the characters talk as if they are from Atlanta. In fact, the dialogue is so non-regional, I keep thinking they’re in Los Angeles. I’m sure the director is miffed at this criticism because Atlanta is emblazoned on the sides of the police cars to ensure viewers remember where the series is set.

And I’m not saying the episodes weren’t filmed in Atlanta. Every time I’ve been to Atlanta, I don’t see much because we race through the city on the interstate hemmed in by a bunch of NASCAR wannabes. All the while, my husband is cussing in fluent military.

But Atlanta, for all it big city ways, is in Georgia which is located in the South. But if you watch "Complications," you would never guess by listening to the characters.

I have yet to hear one character on that show speak with a Southern accent. Now I realize a tremendous number of non natives have moved to Atlanta, but it’s hard to believe there’s no one left who speaks the Southern vernacular. As far as I can hear, every character speaks as if they just finished elocution class. To include gang members.

I may be stereotyping gang members, but here’s what I would automatically guess about a gang member in Georgia. One, they are native to the area. Two, they attended the public school system. Three, they probably aren’t high school graduates. With Atlanta public schools having a dropout rate of 40% in 2014, it’s even more difficult to believe Atlanta gang members would speak as if they graduated from college.

Or a Hollywood elocution class.

I mean, I haven’t even heard one “y’all” and that’s about standard in the South when speaking of more than one “you.” And any Southern gang member worth his salt would end a threat with, “y’hear.”

Where am I going with this? I’m saying that setting influences dialogue. As a writer, you need to keep that in mind. If your story is set in New England, the characters will not be sprinkling “y’all” in their conversations. But if it is set in the South, the characters should help establish the “feel” of the setting by the way they speak.

Now I’m not saying dialogue needs to be saturated with dialect that renders it unintelligible to the reader or in "Complications" case, viewers, but if your book is set in Atlanta, keep the reader in Atlanta by using dialogue that reflects the location. You’re inviting the reader into your story world. Be sure that story world is as real as you can make it.

Don’t let a sign on the side of a police car be your only clue as to where your story takes place.