Friday, December 19, 2008

More About the Rhythm of Words

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.

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  1. Thanks for that sample Maryann. It certainly demonstrated what you were talking about. The voices of the two came across distinctly and clearly.

  2. You did a great job, Maryann and learned something valuable in the process.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. That was an excellent excerpt. I'd love to read the whole piece and as a Southerner, I appreciate you putting the 'g's' back, lol. But the point you made about being thoughtful in managing your dialogue is a good one.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an example as rich as yours is worth a million. Thank you, especially when I'm putting the finishing touches on a manuscript that has a chapter with some dialect in it. Going to look me up those conversations, make sure I gots them right.

  5. Thanks for all the comments and kind words about my story excerpt. I was out of town and offline for the last few days, so just now discovered the post had gone live and there were comments.

  6. In my head, the 'g's were missing because of the rest of the speech. Which is much better than them missing on the page. I'm not even sure the 'd' needed to be omitted from 'and'.

    It's a very good example and not easy to do.

  7. Really helpful. I have a character in my novel who is from the southern USA - and I've been dropping his g's. I'll go put them right back. It was particularly useful to have an example. A lot of 'tips' miss that part :-(


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