Over the last few months I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books, and while most of them were enjoyable (good story, interesting characters etc), I kept coming across one particular issue. Now while this issue doesn’t cause me to chuck the book out the damn window, it’s quite irksome and constantly distracts me from the plot. Which is never a good thing.
So what am I taking about? Contractions. That’s right – those shortened versions of longer phrases, such as I’ve (I have), should’ve (should have), won’t (will not) etc.
Although it’s absolutely fine and grammatically correct to use the longer versions, when it comes to dialogue there are several reasons why authors might want to squeeze those sentences and use the contracted form:
- To give the character a more authentic voice, showing how they might actually talk.
- To vary the style of the dialogue and differentiate more clearly between the dialogue of different characters
- To avoid all the characters sounding like robots.
A character who is a bit of a ne-er-do-well, poorly educated, or just a bit of a Cockney Geezer, might say:
You are correct – I did remove the item from the man’s pocket while his attention was otherwise engaged. Although I meant no harm by this action.
Trouble is, this makes him sound overly formal and a bit posh. Maybe it’d be more interesting like this:
You’re right – I took it out of his pocket when he wasn’t lookin’. Didn’t mean no ‘arm though, did I?
Okay, I admit that’s a slight exaggeration. Here’s a few more straightforward examples:
The car was not speeding – do you not agree, officer?
The car wasn’t speeding – don’t you agree, officer?
I will speak to him later.
I’ll speak to him later.
It is not a good idea.
It’s not a good idea. / It isn’t a good idea.
Do not be ridiculous – she will be fine as soon as we kill Dracula.
Don’t be ridiculous. She’ll be fine as soon as we kill Dracula.
One final thought – best-selling author Maria Murnane pointed out that dialogue without contractions can leave your characters sounding a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but even Arnie uses contractions occasionally:
I’ll be back.