He Says, She Says: Who’s Talking Now

A couple of years ago I had some one-on-one time with two well respected writers. One, Nino Ricci, who won the governor General’s Award in Canada and the other Kenneth Oppel, acclaimed YA fiction writer. Both these ‘experts’ gave me the same advice. But – they were wrong, both of them. Yep, I disagree with the experts. Arrogant? I hope not.

What was that advice? They told me to use modern dialogue in all my work. Their reasoning? That, even though I wrote about a time long ago and a place that never really existed, the people speaking in my books, would, in their own minds, speak colloquially and would hear themselves as we hear each other today.

However, Ricci admitted he had never read a Fantasy novel and that my archaic language was likely a convention. Oppel didn’t even get that far. Being the novice that I was (still am?) their advice worried me, especially as they both said the same thing.

Not for long, though. I took some time to think about why I liked the way my characters spoke, why even my narrative prose felt right with more formality in its tone, had a nice ‘old world’ feel. I thought about why I had chosen not to use contractions; why I had, for the most part avoided big words, or even words that had obvious Latin roots. (I did ease up on the latter, as it became too hard to communicate without some of these.)

On one point, Ricci and Oppel were right. Everyone, in every society, speaks in what feels normal, and so current and colloquial, to them. But here is where we parted ways. I think that both the narrative and the dialogue must ‘fit’ with the genre you are writing in and suit the era in which the tale takes place. I believe that readers want a seamless experience that transports them into the work, that allows them to both picture it and to ’hear’ it. The whole package has to be consistent.

I’ll offer a couple of examples. JD (Dan) Mader’s book Joe Café takes place in a modern day western setting. His characters live in what some would call the ‘underbelly’ of our current culture. They are rough, belong to a seedy sub-culture and deal with current issues. He has them speak in the vernacular, has them curse and use improper grammar. The rest of his prose follows that same tone, uses that same edgy, narrative prose, with a few curse words thrown in. Matching the dialogue with the prose makes the work seamless. We are there with him as we read.

Yet, were I to read a book about a WASP middle class fifties family in a small town in North America, I would use almost no curse words (except, perhaps from the rebellious teen son, and then only among his ‘buds’) and more grammatically correct phrasing.

My own work is at the other end of the curve. I write Fantasy fiction. My story takes place in a late bronze age, very formal society, with small areas ruled by lords. There are castles, battles, little technology. I cannot imagine my characters speaking the way I do in the here and now. It just wouldn’t feel right. Nor do I think that my narrative passages would work with current terms and patterns. Just imagine a guard saying “Sure thing, my lord, gotcha”. I have him say, “As you wish, my lord”. Or imagine a lady’s maid saying “Wow, my lady, that gown looks awesome”. A soldier would not exclaim over the ‘hot chick’ he ‘scored with’. Words like ‘awesome’, ‘right on’ and such would be completely out of place. They would jolt the reader out of the scene and detract from their reading experience. To say that I do this merely because it is a ‘convention’ fails to take into account the experience I am trying to create for the reader.

If I were to write a piece of futuristic science fiction I would try to develop a style that reflected that, with some newly coined words and a fresh turn of phrase, repeated until it becomes natural to ‘that’ society and that work. In this case I would include some ‘current’ and possibly even ‘old’ words and phrases as well, to reflect the history of language that we carry with us into new generations.

Chris James said it so well in a recent post. (here) We need to be consistent. Our ‘voice’ needs to remain the same throughout our work, our dialogue needs to match our narrative. Consistency is not only about spelling, grammar and punctuation. It is about all aspects of our writing, and it is often that consistency which makes our work recognizable, that defines our ‘style’.

I have read books that did not take genre and era into account. When the dialogue in a medieval setting included modern clichés and phrases in the dialogue it jarred me out of the flow and made it hard for me to ‘get into’ the story. I am convinced I am not alone.

So, I disagree with my ‘experts’, and likely with many who consider themselves experts. I think that we must, as communicators, adapt our style, our voice, and our dialogue to the time and genre in which we write. If we fail to do so we risk creating a work that readers will not find believable or that feels disjointed and poorly crafted. And the last thing we want, as writers, is to fail to pull our readers into our stories.

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Yvonne Hertzberger is a Contributing Author at Indies Unlimited and author of Back From Chaos and Through Kestrel’s Eyes, Books One and Two of Earth’s Pendulum, an Epic fantasy trilogy. For more information please see the IU Bio page and her blog @  http:/yvonnehertzberger.com.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “He Says, She Says: Who’s Talking Now”

  1. Yvonne: You're absolutely right. The dialogue should fit the era and history. I recently watched a movie that was about ancient time and the characters used modern slang; after the third time, I switched channels. It really bugged me. Problem was, other than the 'hip' dialogue coming from peasants and knights (and it wasn't supposed to be a comedy or parody either) it was a great story.

  2. Excellent, Yvonne! I agree with you. When I'm reading a historical novel, I feel a little taken out of the story when a character uses modern colloquialisms. Now, historically accurate colloquialisms are cool…

  3. I'm with you 100% Yvonne. Creating a vernacular to suit the time and place can be tricky but I believe it's one more, very necessary element to world building. When I started writing about my aliens I literally could not write dialogue because I hadn't yet worked out 'how' they would speak. When no-one has a name and everyone is an 'it' and most pronouns are forbidden how do you get them to address each other? It took me ages to work out a rather strange, stilted form of speech that still managed to be understandable. One very nice, and unexpected side benefit was that I realised that the word 'you' would make an excellent profanity. 😀 I have had to ease the reader into the lilt of the language though.

      1. As with most things I do I didn't realise how much of a challenger until it was too late to turn back. But that's the fun, right?

  4. Yvonne,

    I agree with you completely – every word in a story has to be about and add to the story. Having a speaker utter current slang in a story set 500 or more years in the past would only destroy the sense of "realism" you're working so hard to create.

    Of course it's possible to go too far the other way and be too precise (and risk losing the reader because the dialogue is too archaic), but happily there are no recordings of exactly how people spoke centuries ago, which gives us quite a bit of leeway.


  5. I, too, disagree with the experts. My two novels are set in post Civil War Texas. The second does take the family into the twentieth century. The speech does become different then. The mutant alien from another planet at times has difficulty fitting into their speech habits. To me, this is logical, as the people I worked with from foreign countries had difficulties with our colloquial English. Formal English was not a problem for them as they had a degree in English. Every day speech could leave their faces and eyes blank. You have to make your characters real for the time and era. Good post.

    1. Yes, I understand that well. Here, in Canada "French" is quite different from that same language spoken in France. They cannot even understand each other. And there are so many regional differences.

      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

      1. I went to school with Frank from France and Canadian Steve. Canadian Steve had a favorite French swear word he used a lot, but all Frank heard him say was "Box, Box, Box."

        1. Exactly. I learned a bit of Parisian French and can make myself understood and even understand the basics if spoken slowly. Can't understand the way they chew French up in Quebec, though. No resemblance at all. Funny that they taught us that way in school and not the other. I have to say, though, that I love the sound of Parisian French.

  6. This is a really interesting post. Language is far too much an important aspect of who we are to ignore how it might be affected by culture and station. I write mostly plays at the moment, and when I'm developing a character for a script more important to their identity than what they say, is how they say it. I agree with you, Yvonne, there are too many opportunities to be missed by giving every character contemporary speech patterns, and I think this is true even for contemporary settings. There's just so much to sink our teeth into with the unique ways language may have developed for an individual – why wouldn't we want to explore that?

  7. Great post! And thanks for the shout out. 😉

    You make some excellent points here and I firmly believe that dialogue is something writers need to pay WAY more attention to. Well in.

  8. Couldn't agree more, Yvonne! I have a girl of Scottish raised in France whose family demands that she learn English. She doesn't learn idioms or contractions. Her uncle teaches her a very pure English language. The rest of the characters speak with French and Scottish accents. Add to this the time frame of 1912.

    Think how much my readers would miss in that book, if I stuck to these experts' rules.

    By the way–just what makes them experts that can expound on what ALL writers should do unless they are reading all types of literature? Nothing I can think of. You know who is the expert on MY writing?


  9. Very interesting post, Yvonne. Dialogue is so difficult to do well and [I think] unless an author can hear the characters speaking in 'their' voices, it becomes quite impossible. Which means, pay attention to what works for them, and for you as the author, and of course for the time period the story takes place in. Great article!

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