Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Write Dialogue That Delights, Not Distracts by Jennifer Lamont Leo

Before I wrote novels, I was a playwright. I cut my storytelling teeth on skits, sketches, and plays. Maybe that’s why dialogue is my favorite part of writing fiction. Faced with a blank screen, I’ll often kick off a scene by writing out the dialogue first, then building the rest of the story around it.

Theatrical scripts are all about the dialogue. There’s no place for lengthy narratives about what’s going on, or detailed descriptions of setting and time period. Dialogue, brought to life by actors and amplified by scenery, lighting, and costuming, has to carry the story.

In historical novels, of course, dialogue needs to be true to the time period, without making today’s reader struggle too hard to make sense of it. It’s a delicate balance We all cringe when an eighteenth-century character blurts out modernisms like “Okay” or “I’ve got your back.” At the other end of the spectrum, dialogue that labors too hard to communicate an accent or style of speech can be troublesome, too. Consider this tidbit from Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone With the Wind.

“’Is de gempmum gone? Huccome you din’ ast dem ter stay fer supper, Miss Scarlett? Ah done tole Poke ter lay two extry plates fer dem. What’s yo’ manners?”

This passage is meant to convey the speech of Mammy, an African American slave, and it does a pretty good job--if you read it out loud. If you’re like me, you had to go over it two or three times before making sense of it. That sort of effort kicks the reader out of the story, and may even frustrate her to the point where she stops reading and tosses the book in the “donate” box. How tragic if she missed out on Gone With the Wind’s epic story—or yours—because of hard-to-read dialogue.

Instead, sift in a few word choices to suggest an accent or distinctive speech pattern without trying to mimic it. With apologies to Margaret Mitchell, here’s one suggested rewriting of the above passage to make it a little more intelligible to modern readers:

“Is de gentlemen gone? How come you didn’t ask dem to stay for supper, Miss Scarlett? I done told Poke to lay two extra plates for dem. What’s yo’ manners?”

With a lighter touch, the reader “hears” Mammy’s vocabulary and cadence without being completely thrown off course.

Here’s a recipe for good historical dialogue: Gather authentic words and speech patterns of the era by combing through books, speeches, letters, and diaries. (If, like me, you’re writing about the twentieth century, you also have a rich lode of movies, TV, and radio recordings.) Sprinkle them lightly through your text to season without overpowering. Then sift out any twenty-first-century expressions that may have crept in. You’ll delight your readers with dialogue that enhances, and doesn’t distract from, your story.

Is there something in particular that you struggle with regarding dialog?


Jennifer Lamont Leo loves all things vintage, especially stories set in the early twentieth century. Her debut novel, You’re the Cream in My Coffee, won an ACFW Carol Award. Her new book, Ain’t Misbehavin’, is also set in 1920s Chicago. An Illinois native, she now lives in rural northern Idaho with her husband, two cats, and abundant wildlife.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
You’re the Cream in My Coffee
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