Let's look at some examples of bad SF/fantasy dialog. I made these
up, but you can have fun and sharpen your "ear" for dialog by finding
similar examples. You sometimes can find problematic dialog in
professionally published work, but you're most likely to find it in
e-zines that don't pay their authors. If you're in a writers' group,
look for problem dialog in the drafts submitted for critique. And, of
course, take a hard look at the dialog in your own work!
Kneeling Elk dismounted. "I am being honored greeting you," he
said in his native tongue. "You have been sitting many long time?" I was
glad I'd lived with his people and had learned the language.
In his native tongue, which our narrator claims to understand well,
Kneeling Elk is undoubtedly more fluent than he appears here.
Fortunately, English is a flexible language that can, even in
translation, capture cultural nuances. Thus, the fact that Kneeling Elk
is "honored" rather than "pleased" or "happy" or just, like, "Hey, man!
Whassup?" tells us something.
We have another opportunity with "many long time." "Many moons" and
"many turnings of the sun" are clichéd, but let's say our characters are
meeting next to a stream in the autumn. Then, to give us a sense of how
his culture perceives the passage of time, we might have him say, "Have
you seen many leaves float past?" Or a different cultural clue would be
given by, "Have you had to eat alone?"
Brzzzt crawled closer. I could feel her carrion-laced breath on
my face. "Zzz zzzzz zz z z z zzzzzzz!" She wanted me to follow her.
If this is all that Brzzzt says in this story, the Z approach may be
okay. In a humorous story, it may even add something. However, if Brzzzt
is a talkative giant fly, do we really want to read through lines of Zs
followed by echoes in English? Brzzzt buzzes -- just tell me that she
buzzes, or have us hear a buzzing fly-to-fly conversation going on in
the background somewhere. Then give the rest to me in translation.
Altheor knelt at Princess O'Sopretty's feet and touched his lips to
the silver embroidery on the hem of her green silk gown. "Would that I
deservéd but the merest whisper of thine sweet breath upon mine ear."
She leaned forward, cupped his unshaven chin in her dainty palm, and
lifted his face towards hers. "Nay, lady!" He sprang back. "Your lips do
tempt mine, but my lips may not have such commerce as they desireth,
for at the feast tonight, your father did serve of the garlic most
abundantly, and my breath be most foul."
It's not unusual for authors attempting high fantasy to put
high-falutin' words in their characters' mouths, in the mistaken notion
that such dialog will impart a majesty to their characters and setting.
"But Tolkien does it!" True: J.R.R. Tolkien does use such language,
sparingly, when regal characters are in the most formal or grave of
circumstances. And Tolkien had a background in linguistics and knew what
he was doing. As a rule, don't try to write in the English of the Bible or of Shakespeare unless you can write it to that standard. And even then, don't overdo it.