In a 1962 letter to Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck advised, “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
I don’t entirely subscribe to this philosophy. Dialog in fiction doesn’t resemble real speech. People stop and start, hem and haw, talk in circles. Fictional dialog, unless the author is making a point, is devoid of most of these quirks. To demonstrate how ditzy Rita is in the Dexter novels, author Jeff Lindsay usually has her start a sentence several times without ever reaching the conclusion. People don’t really talk the way they do in Elmore Leonard’s novels, even though he’s a master of dialog. Well, they do on Justified, but mostly people only wish they could talk that way.
Still there is a value in reading aloud. Not just your own work, either.
For the past several years, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading to my wife. She enjoys hearing the sound of my voice, she says, and I’m happy to comply. We have a number of go-to authors who write straightforward and charming stories. We enjoy Alexander McCall Smith, for example, author of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries, as well as a number of other series. I’m currently reading The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney, the most recent in a series featuring an Irish man who, in the 1950s, works for the Folklore Society gathering and recording oral traditions. Every now and then I attempt a brogue, just for the fun of it.
Last year, I read aloud two Bradbury books: Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s language is magical and florid, but it was interesting to see how different his style was in these two books. In the former, there are copious colorful metaphors, but the language is fairly direct. The latter almost broke my tongue when reading aloud. Sentences that started off in one direction shifted halfway through and took off in another. Searching for the right way to emphasize words meant sometimes quickly reading ahead to figure out what it was going to be about. Occasionally the sentences came out feeling leaden and clunky, but when I realized what he’d written, I’d go back and took a second stab at them. It was an edifying experience. More recently I read Death is a Lonely Business and had much the same experience. I think that’s one reason why Bradbury has virtually no imitators. I still can’t figure out how he does what he does.
One of the final things I do with a work of short fiction is read it aloud to myself. Now, prose isn’t designed to be read out loud, at least not primarily. Prose is for the printed page, and the process of reading is quite different from reading aloud. As I discovered, Bradbury is much easier to read inside my head. However, one of the surest ways of finding things that will sound clumsy and clunky, whether read aloud or internally, is to read them out loud. If you stumble over your own words, imagine what it will be like for another reader. If a transition catches you by surprise or feels awkward, it will stick out. You’ll hear the echo of awkwardness in your own voice. You’ll feel your own confusion. It’s also a great way to find typos because you are forced to read every word and not skim, the way you might if reading internally.
I reserve this process until the very end, because there’s no point in finding those last few clunkers if you’re just going to rearrange the story substantially afterwards. Who knows how many awkward things you’ll end up inserting.
Did I read this essay out loud before I posted it? Well, honestly, no. But maybe I should have. Read it aloud to yourselves and let me know where I went wrong!