Last time I wrote about how important rhythm is in establishing voice and style. Rhythm is equally important in dialogue. To make your characters distinct, they have to speak with their own cadence. A street-wise kid is going to talk differently than one who goes to a preppy boarding school. Cops talk differently than lawyers. Farmers talk differently than store clerks. Adults talk differently than children, and women talk differently than men.
In creating those differences, however, be careful about using dialect, Ebonics, and/or pigeon English to extreme. If you want a character to come across as uneducated, that can be accomplished without totally fracturing the written language.
At one point an editor from Southern Living Magazine rejected a short story of mine, with a handwritten notation that he might consider it if I rewrote it. He included editorial guidelines that said he would not even consider a story that attempted southern dialect by dropping ‘g’s.
At first I thought, how weird. Southerners drop the g’s all the time. But his point was that a good writer can capture that dialect through rhythm. I reworked a story that editor was interested in, putting back all the ‘g’s and discovered that, if I worked hard enough, my protagonist was talking or thinking just the way a poor Texas farmer would. Here is a sample from the story:
"Have you ever had the itch to travel?" Chad handed a beer across to his grandfather. "You're the only person I know who's never been anywhere."
"Thought on it some when I was young." Samson sat down and took a long swallow of the cool, refreshing beer. "Had an idea of going to Africa one time. See where my grandpa came from."
"Why didn't you?"
"Never found a mule that could swim that far."
As the laughter subsided, a companionable silence settled between them, broken only by the soft whisper of music humming in the background and the buzz of a pesky fly.
"Fact is," Samson paused to drain his beer and open another. "I been thinking on it some. Wondering what's down the road that draws people so."
Again he paused and carefully shelled a pecan. "You know there's things I hear on that radio I never even seen."
Chad watched the rough, gnarled fingers pick the nutmeat out of the broken shell, then glanced up to meet his grandfather's eyes. "Well, maybe you should quit thinking and start doing."
"Aw, hell! Everybody's got things they thought about an' never done." Samson shifted impatiently. "I'm ninety years old, boy. Sometimes it's just too late."
"It doesn't have to be. Only if you think so." Chad leaned forward as if he could sway the old man by the sheer force of youthful enthusiasm. "I could help you fix the truck. Then you'd have nothing to hold you back. You could start by coming up to see me. It's not that far."
Samson withdrew into a thoughtful silence, then he sighed deeply. "I'm gonna have to think on it some."
The rewrite took some time. It wasn’t just a matter of putting all the g’s back. I had to rework the dialogue and the internal monologues to capture the rhythm of this old man. I also had to pay close attention to how the other characters talked to ensure there was enough distinction that they all weren’t sounding like Samson.
But all the hard work was worth it, and with careful crafting, you, too, can have characters that come to life through the rhythm of their words.
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. When she is not working, she loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.