J. A. Beard’s A Woman of Proper Accomplishments
When I first decided to take my creative writing from occasional short story scribbling to something greater, I found I had an issue with dialog. This isn’t to say that my dialog was utterly horrid, but rather that the speech patterns of most of my characters sounded rather suspiciously like a transcript of my own speech patterns or, occasionally, the speech patterns of my youth, which have the dual issue of still being somewhat specific to me and comically out of date.
Initially, I thought the problem was simple. I thought it was just a matter of working out the background of my characters and then keeping that in the forefront of my thoughts as I penned their dialog. If I knew the background of XYZ character, I could adjust accordingly. Easy, right? Yeah, not so much.
Once I accepted the depth of my problem with dialog, I decided to follow a piece of an advice that is as good for writing as it is for relationships: listen, listen, listen. I started paying a lot more attention to what people around me were saying and how they were saying it.
The issue, I found, was that there’s a large gap between what I thought best represented my characters on the page and what actually felt natural. First and foremost, readers respond to what flows naturally and reads authentically. Characters whose speech patterns don’t line up with how they are otherwise represented in the story damage the holy of holies of fiction: verisimilitude. It’s also not very natural for everyone in a story to sound exactly the same (e.g., just like the author).
My quest for dialog became (and continues to be) both an exercise in improving my fundamental writing ability and a linguistic exercise. Active listening taught me that speech patterns are a fingerprint of sort, consisting of various sorts of distinguishable elements that can rendered on the page, including many things beyond the obvious such as phonetics, slang, and jargon. For example, it’s amazing how much diversity in a relatively homogenous population one encounters in things like simple word choice and syntax emphasis.
In addition to actually critically analyzing speech in the real world, I also have come to value the useful resource of other novels and stories. Different authors bring own their style and backgrounds to their writing, both of which work together to influence what sort of dialog makes it to the page. Exploring the dialog of others has helped to crystallize for me what sorts of elements make for good dialog.
I’ve found it isn’t about being slavish to a total accurate representation of actual speech, but rather about knowing what to emphasize for a good combination of natural flow and verisimilitude. This, combined with my listening, has helped teach me how to tweak dialog to feel real but still best serve the needs of the written page.
Recently, I was asked to contribute to the book How to Write Dialog, by my friend Matt Posner, who actually put significant effort into gathering a huge number of examples from many different authors and situations. In reading through the book beyond on my very meager contributions, I was fascinated by all the different examples from authors both old and new. Given there are so many different ways of representing interesting speech and it serves so many functions, a wide variety of examples are helpful.
The world changes. People changes. Writing fashions come and go. Therefore, I’ll always need to be critically listening to the language around me and critically studying the grand expanse of other authors: from the time-tested authors of the classics to my modern peers.
J.A. Beard is a restless soul married to an equally restless soul. He has restless children. When he hasn’t been writing, studying history, or making excuses for not writing, he’s tried his hand at several careers including intelligence analysis, programming, scientific editing, and research science.
Though he likes to declare himself the Pie Master, he’s yet to prove his worth in the brutal baking show-downs of Celebration, Florida.
In addition to his recent contributions to How to Write Dialog, J.A. Beard has penned several fantasy novels. He’s dabbled in a variety of sub-genres, including historical fantasy (A Woman of Proper Accomplishments), epic fantasy (Mind Crafter), and contemporary YA fantasy (The Emerald City).