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The Editor’s Clinic: Good Talk

In the comments on a recent Editor’s Clinic [1], the question came up as to when you should treat a language colloquially – contractions, a relaxed, familiar syntax — and when you should use a bit of formality to create a sense of otherness.  The example then was of a conversation between two characters living a few millennia ago in Ancient Sumeria, speaking a language that developed before writing was invented.  And this morning’s example goes even further afield, with creatures made of dark matter who communicate primarily through the exchange of pheromones.

As with most writing matters, there are no rules about when formality is appropriate.  But there are a couple of general principles.  The further your characters are from the modern world, the easier it is to have them talk colloquially.  Readers know roughly [2] how people from modern-day Germany or nineteenth-century England should sound, and if your characters sound different, then your readers will feel something is off.  They are less sure of how people spoke a couple millennia ago.  And when your characters are living in another dimension, then anything goes.

You also need to choose a balance between how familiar you want your characters to sound and how foreign you want your world to feel.  In the Sumerian example, the characters had known each other for years and were speaking in an informal context.  Keeping the language colloquial helped reinforce the everyday nature of the conversation.  If you’re more interested in creating a sense of otherness – that you characters don’t quite think the way modern people do – then you can be more free to play games with the language.

This morning’s sample offers another intriguing use of looseness of language to create character.  Oort, the dark-matter narrator, has grown close to his human subjects.  The elders questioning him have not.  Making Oort’s language more relaxed leads readers to feel closer to him and reinforces the sense that he’s thinking differently from his fellow creatures.  Especially when he starts humming hits by the fifties pop icon, Bobby Darin.  To push this contrast even further, I’ve loosed up his dialogue even more, adding contractions and relaxing the language.



The two guards led Oort through the administration corridors of his clan’s ziggurat. Their tentacles were hanging loose hung casually from their heads and their dorsal membranes undulated with a relaxed, steady rhythm. Either they hadn’t been told about the severity of the accusations against him, or they hadn’t had much experience escorting with condemned zwikians.

Clan members darted around them, equally unaware, except for a few who . Some shot him curious glances as they hurried past. More swam in the corridors above and below. He could see them and feel the radiation from their bodies.

[paragraph added]  , bBut he couldn’t not hear them, and he missed that.

He imagined listening for the sounds the guards made, the hiss of their respiration, the jangling of the lockfobs. [1]  But wWithout being connected directly to a human mind, he had no sense of hearing. And even if he did, would he hear anything? He imagined listening for the sounds the guards made, the sounds of their breathing, the jangling of keys. He was sure he would hear nothing. Their natural medium environment didn’t not transmit vibrations. And without vibrations, there were no sounds.

No music.[2]

He‘d had gone way off assignment to study human music — that was why he was being led to tribunal. But musicit had become such an integral part of their psychology and their culture, he could not imagine understanding human development without it.understanding their music. He hoped the committee would let him return and continue his studies. But it was more likely that they would declare him insane.

“We don’t suffer from insanity,” his human, Misty, once said. “We celebrate it — with white chocolate witches and steam powered guitars.” The memory made him smile. When they finally got Dawn to embrace the absurdity of their situation, her talent practically burst out, proving Misty’s favorite quote, “A touch of insanity is the spark of genius.”

His tentacles slipped into the rhythm of one of their songs. “I’m walking in rhythm.” Okay, he was swimming not walking, and the medium he was swimming in was not technically matter, let alone waterhe chuckled inwardly. Maybe he had gone a bit native. But wasn’t that the point of xenoanthropology to bring back knowledge that could enrich the clan? How could anyone truly understand an alien culture without immersing themselves in it?

They swam into the corridor that led to the conference chamber. There were no doors here. Pheromone markers specified the corridor’s purpose and clan members never strayed from their assignments — until he did.  Well, except for him.

The committee members milled around the conference table. Five elders, five clouds of disapproval pheromones. dour expressions. In this case, insanity might simply be Perhaps he was insane for thinking the elders could understand how he’d grown without experiencing it for themselves. The room reeked with disapproval pheromones.

[paragraph added]  More of Dawn’s lyrics came to mind:

You can never see what I’ve seen

never know what I’ve known

You’ll never know if my thoughts are deranged

or simply rearranged

to accept what I’ve seen.

Oort swam into the chamber, and the elders took their positions at the table with the . Unlike human tables, this one contained a shallow repeater bath in the middle. He’d forgotten about this aspect of his species’ committee meetings, it had been so long since he’d attended one. They communicated by exchanging message pheromones, and dDirect physical contact was often necessary for discussing abstract or advanced concepts. Since everyone they only had four tentacles each, meetings of five or more participants required repeater baths to manufacture and distribute the necessary message chemicals.

Splish Splash. I was taking a bath…

Okay, maybe he had been on Earth too long. He took a breath and put his thoughts in order, then. He crawled up to the table and made eye contact with the senior committee member. The elders each dipped their left antennae toward him; their, a formal gesture of welcome to a subordinate. Then everyone extended their tentacles into the bath.

The elder said, “It is good to see you again, clan-child Oortinzha-cli,” the elder said. It has been many cycles. And we are grateful for your safe return. But also disturbed by reports that you may have influenced some of your human subjects.”

Oort dipped his own antennae. “Thank you, Elder. Elders. This is true. Understand, I never intended to influence this subject. I never even intended to communicate with her. I kept her unaware of my presence until your retrieval goons endangered her life.”

“Goons? Is that a real word?

“The retrieval team. Sorry. ‘Goon’ is a human term I’ve picked up. I’ve been embedded with this human family for five generations now. And I often connected with them. I’m afraid I‘ve have adopted some of their ways of thinking.”

“Their bodies are composed of baryonic matter,” another elder assertedsaid. “How could you connect with them?”

“Some of the dendrites extending from their brain cells are tipped with axonic microvilli. If I let Allowing these microvilli to penetrate my body, I could enabled me to receive their neural impulses. This gave me partial access to their sensory experiences.”

Which was true as far as it went.  After he I began connecting with them, two of my his subjects began growing more extensive networks of microvilli. Eventually, this enabled me him to communicate with two of them directly. [3]

The members’ silence suggested either they didn’t approve or didn’t believe this was possible. Oort couldn’t tell which was the case.

[paragraph added] “As I said,” Oort said, I’d been embedded with this human family for five generations. Their males were mostly scientists and engineers, a few had also been soldiers and businessmen. Most of their females were as nest tenders, but some also became teachers, and advisors. But this most recent subject, Dawn, was different. From a very young age, she showed the potential to become a musician.”

“What is..?”

“An artisan who crafts sound waves and vibrations for the aesthetic pleasure of others.”

Two committee members withdrew their tentacles from the bath and extended them to each other. They communicated privately for several ticks before rejoining the group conversation. “Your report mentioned this, but we do not understand.”

“Humans live in an environment that propagates vibrations with a wide range an unlimited number [4] of amplitudes and frequencies. They call this sound, and they use these sounds to communicate. They‘ve have also discovered a multitude of ways to combine different sounds for pleasure. They call this music.

“This child, Dawn, was the first in her family to show an aptitude for music. And when I connected with her, I could experience some of the pleasure she felt when crafting and sharing her music. I studied her development, and I noticed something truly amazing. Whenever she played her music, she brought joy and pleasure to her family. And as I studied this, I noticed the people around her sometimes exhibited enhanced creativity and intelligence; It was as if her music somehow stimulated their cognitive abilities.

“I became fascinated with this possibility, and knew I had to study her. I connected with her more and more frequently, discovering that I too could enjoy the sensations of music through her mind.

“I did not realize that our connection was influencing her thoughts until…”  [Here the prologue ends and the first chapter, from Dawn’s point of view, begins.]


  1. Even if his language is more colloquial, the nouns should fit the strangeness of his world.  “Keys” sounded a little too human.
  2. Given how important the loss of music is to him, I thought it deserved its own brief paragraph.
  3. It was a little unclear, but it seems you originally intended this paragraph to be spoken.  I thought that, by having Oort downplay the depth of his connection to his human subjects would emphasize the distance between him and his fellow beings.
  4. Well, not unlimited.


Once again, if you’d like to submit a sample of your own work — either the opening or a particular scene you’re having trouble with — for editing, you can find the submission guidelines here [3].  And if you simply have a question about any writing topic, just put it in the comments.  It may show up in a future column.

About Dave King [4]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [5].