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Writing Dialogue: Class Differences

This week I’m going to talk about dialogue. This first entry is going to be about class.

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I grew up pretty poor. My parents were divorced. My dad was a truck driver who didn’t make it past fourth grade even though he is super smart. My mom, who is also super smart, never went to college, but she made sure I did.

So, I grew up poor, but I also grew up exposed to wealth. My uncle, a lawyer and a judge, had senators and governors over his house regularly. Every Thanksgiving I shared turkey with a cousin who went to Harvard law school and medical school. His dad helped create the measles vaccine. 

At one end of the table my truck-driver dad would be saying, “Then the motor? Just kaput.”

At the other end of the table, my sort-of-uncle would be saying, “The proliferation of HIV-positive women in Africa promises to be a problem of epidemic proportions. I’m really tremendously concerned.”

Two different speech worlds collided over turkey every year.

 

 

What does this have to do with dialogue, you’re probably wondering.

Listening to all those different voices in my family exposed me to a lot of different speech patterns and word choices. Listening to all those different voices made it hard for me to find certain dialogue in certain contemporary romances believable. It made me realize that class and background affect speech patterns and word choices. A lot.

In MFA classes and in blogs, I hear writers worrying a lot about how to sound like teens when they are not teens. They worry that when writing outside of their age they will fail

 It’s important, true, but what I don’t hear authors ever talk about is how to write outside of their socio-economic class.

 Yes, I said it: Socio-economic class.

 In the United States, we tend to pretend that there aren’t socio-economic classes. That there aren’t haves and have nots. Presidential candidate John Edwards talked about the two Americas a lot. People didn’t really listen or vote for him. Presidential candidate Barak Obama got into political hot water when he talked about the working class of Pennsylvania being “bitter” about the economy and “clinging” to religion and guns for stability. People called him ‘elite.’ Elite is considered a bad thing in politics. Then Hilary Clinton campaigned in the Pennsylvania primary and slugged back shots to prove she wasn’t elite. That she was regular.

I’m not endorsing any political candidate. What I find interesting is:

  1. The attempt to pretend that presidential candidates are of the same socio-economic class as the voters
  2. That the voters are all of one socio-economic class.
  3. The animosity that’s created when it is revealed that there actually are classes in the American society.
  4. How we try so hard as a culture to pretend that class differences don’t exist.

 So, once again, what does this have to do with dialogue?

Andrew Karre, the acquiring editor of the teen imprint, Flux, told me, “Good dialogue is unmistakable, but it’s hard to say why. I think it’s a combination of natural flow and true inventiveness. For instance, the dialogue in FEED (by M.T. Anderson) is a lot more interesting than the dialogue in a lot of books with contemporary, realistic teen settings—where the author was trying to “get it right” with reality. I think Anderson simply tried to make it beautiful. Bad dialogue puts too high a premium on being “how teens really talk.” I don’t think we read to hear how teens or anyone else really talks. We could simply go to the mall for that. I think we read to find a combination of inspiration and invention. When I read, I’m not asking myself, “does this sound like a teenager?” Rather, I ask, “Is the author making me believe this character talks like this?””

 
Part of what makes me believe a character is their language choice. And language choice has a lot to do with socio-economic class. As writers, it’s our responsibility to be cognizant of this.

In her book, Starting from Scratch, author Rita Mae Brown writes, “The difference between you and other people comes out in speech. Obviously, difference displays itself in the subject matter people talk about, but on a deeper, more subtle level, it displays itself on the way they frame their very ideas.”

 
To know our characters we must know how they talk. To know how they talk we must know their class just as well as we know all the details about them.

 
Hint: If all your characters speak the same way you speak it gets a little dull. No offense.

 
So, how do we do it? How do we show character class via dialogue?

 

Part of it is word choice.

 


Imagine Princess Elizabeth of the Made-Up Country of Usania. The paparazzi is following her as she strolls along the beach with her two-year-old toddler, Prince Poppyupants. They are asking very impertinent questions about the princess’ former lover, Mr. Happyhands.

 

PAPARAZZI GUY A: “Princess! Tell us about Happyhands. How happy were those hands? Huh?”

PAPARAZZI GUY B: “Princess, please illuminate us about your tawdry escapades and liaisons with one Jonah Happyhands.”

 

There’s a difference there, isn’t there?

The intent is the same, but the words are really REALLY different and they give us one of two notions:

 

  1. Paparazzi Guy B is really poorly written by some incredibly wealthy writer who has no idea how the paparazzi talk.
  2. Paparazzi Guy B is really, really wealthy and perhaps just posing as the paparazzi, or maybe he’s lost all his money, or maybe he’s trying to talk in the princess’ language or maybe he’s the prince incognito….We know he’s well educated. We know he understands the upper-class or is from the upper-class or is pretending to be.

 

Rita Mae Brown says, “Speech is a literary biopsy.”

A writer could explain to you that Paparazzi Guy B is wealthy by describing his amazing car, his better-than-your-average paparazzi’s camera, his expensive eyebrow threading treatments and hair replacement surgery. But instead, a writer could also do that, or reinforce that, with dialogue.

In my next post, I'll tell you a little more about Brown's class divisions and hints about how to illuminate character with dialogue.

This week I’ll also post interviews with agent Edward Necarsulmer IV, of McIntosh and Otis; Flux Editor Andrew Karre, and authors Rita Williams-Garcia, Micol Ostow, and Linda Urban. They will all talk about dialogue.

 Brown, Rita Mae. Starting From Scratch. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

 

Comments

( 63 comments — Leave a comment )
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jeannineatkins
May. 5th, 2008 11:57 am (UTC)
Carrie, I loved your Thanksgiving table description. And I think you're right about the powers that be wanting to blur class backgrounds. We just read Bridge to Terabithia in my children's literature class, and in it, Katherine Paterson made the division between the son of a struggling farmer and the daughter of a family that could choose to live in the country, or anywhere, a source of tension. The recent movie, which adhered beautifully to the novel in so many other ways, blurred the class differences.

I look forward to hearing more about voice!
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 12:16 pm (UTC)
She did an amazing job with that in the book.

Thank you so much for making me remember that, Jeannine.
patesden
May. 5th, 2008 11:57 am (UTC)
Thank you. This 100% showed me something I've been missing with one of my characters. So far, I've only showed how he speaks when he is alone with the main character. I just realized his speech pattern would be different in public--that's part of why everyone is convinced he's an ass.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 12:18 pm (UTC)
I'm so happy that it helped! That's the best kind of news on a Monday morning.

I have a friend (in real life) who does that same thing. He became a totally different person in public (including speech patterns and word choice) than he was when we were alone. I've never tried to do that with a character though. That's going to be so fun for you.
juliakarr
May. 5th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
Great post! Thanks so much! I wasn't aware of that book by Rita Mae Brown (an author I LOVE) - so, I will be sure to go out and get it. One can never have too many good books on writing - although one should actually BE writing more than reading about writing. :^D
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 01:06 pm (UTC)
I hope it's still in print!
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linbinwriter
May. 5th, 2008 12:53 pm (UTC)
This is such an interesting topic, Carrie. To me, class differences in dialogue are tied to ethnicity which might lead to thinking even more deeply about character (I would guess, says the nonfiction writer). I'm also supposing one would think more carefully about place since dialogue is so particular in that way too. For example, someone from Maine might identify someone as having a New York accent while a New Yorker might be able to tell if they're from Brooklyn or Staten Island. This could also tell you a lot about a character.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 01:03 pm (UTC)
This is absolutely true. Gender, race, ethnicity, religion, occupation, region can all affect how people think and speak and influence our character.

I once was telling a car salesman about how my car died and I said, "It just went kaput."

He looked at me and said, "You are from New York."

"No," I said. "I'm not."

He insisted. Then he said, "Well, one of your parents is from New York then."

And, my dad is from Staten Island. I never think of him as being from there, though. So I realized this and the car salesman beamed.

Then I asked him how he knew.

And he said, "Nobody from Maine says 'kaput.' That's all New York right there."
megancrewe
May. 5th, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
Great post! Dialogue's something I've always struggled with, so it's always helpful to read tips and different ways of approaching it. I admit I've never thought very much about how class might affect it--something to keep in mind from here on!
(Anonymous)
May. 5th, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
Right. Go, Obama! Writing outside your socio-economic group is as rift with potential danger as writing dialect from a part of the country you're not from. As a New Englander who lives in the South, I'm very aware of that. Or, as one fifth grader I talked to recently said, "She talks like such a snob."

Writers should beware reverse discrimination and cliched language when trying to characterize someone from any socio-economic group. This thing about class is dicey if we talk about it in simply economic or educational terms. In today's world, it's as much about culture and origin and region, isn't it?

(Anonymous)
May. 5th, 2008 01:20 pm (UTC)
That was me, Stephanie Greene. I didn't mean to post anonymously.
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stephanieburgis
May. 5th, 2008 01:49 pm (UTC)
Yes! People can come from the exact same place and yet speak so differently. This was a really thought-provoking entry - thank you!
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading it, Stephanie.
ex_fashioni
May. 5th, 2008 02:06 pm (UTC)
I love your Thanksgiving table description—especially since I had very similar experiences growing up, conducted in two languages no less. (Plus throw in a female impersonator and a couple of Harley riders and the picture is pretty much complete).

Dialogue is SUCH an important factor in developing characters—while I don't mind lovely language in YA, my particular pet peeve is when the characters come off sounding like world-weary thirty-five year olds.

Let me ask you something, though—do you think it works when a writer uses lovely, lyrical language within the context of narrative and then their dialogue is perhaps a bit coarser, depending on the character? How do you go about balancing something like that? Is a difference between writing say in First Person POV where the narrative is going to closely echo the dialogue and Third, where perhaps there's a bit more narrative freedom?

carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:38 pm (UTC)
I think it can work. I think it contrasting narrative of the protagonist with the dialogue of secondary characters can be really powerful when writing in First Person, maybe exactly because there is less narrative freedom.

What a brilliant question.

I want to go back in time at hang out at your Thanksgiving table.
amanda_marrone
May. 5th, 2008 02:14 pm (UTC)
Great post!

I find it disturbing that presidential candidates raise gobs of money for their campains--I can't help but feel like that money could go for something a little more important than commercials bashing their oppenents. Maybe some of the millions could be given to the people they're pledging to help.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:38 pm (UTC)
That is such a good point, Amanda.
seaheidi
May. 5th, 2008 02:31 pm (UTC)
What a fabulous post, Carrie! I love Andrew's quote. I'm going to hang onto that. Sometimes it's hard to achieve the right balance, especially when writing from a POV of a sensitive teen girl who may notice and be exposed to things not every teenage girl would be, but still making her sound 'teen enough.'

Thanks. =)
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:38 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. Use it!

Thanks for reading, Heidi.
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lurban
May. 5th, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
Smart post, you.
Class is really important to me, too, and I hope it is revealing itself in the dialogue I'm working on in my WIP. Thanks for the reminder, Carrie.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)
I'm sure it is. You're such a great writer, I can't imagine it NOT working.
seaheidi
May. 5th, 2008 02:42 pm (UTC)
Carrie: If you don't mind I'm going to link your blog and post Andrew's fabulous quote (giving you and he full credit of course). It's just such a brilliant thing to say about teen dialog.

Thanks, dahling...
robinellen
May. 5th, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post :) When I write dialogue, I almost always hear it in my head as I'm writing it down -- of course, I also tend to have at least one supporting character in all my books who isn't a WASP...and I guess I often substitute cultural differences for the socio-economic ones. Definitely food for thought!
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)
I hear it, too. That's exactly how I write dialogue.
i_amsherlocked
May. 5th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad I checked in over here! Thank you!
I'll definitely be back to see what you post next!
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading AND commenting!
lilrongal
May. 5th, 2008 03:34 pm (UTC)
I'm going to add this entry to my favorites. :)
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks. That's a BIG honor.
dewabbit
May. 5th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
I rarely have the opportunity to use dialog in my writing (as most of it is technical 'stuff' for grant proposals) but I certainly relate to what you've written here.

I was the first of my family to seek employment outside the 'Blue Collar Class' and the first to go to college. My speech patterns were so affected by the change that my Daddy was highly insulted that I was "gettin' 'bove my raisins and turnin' high falutin' on em all."

It was just cause to become 'bi-lingual'...(in public I speak English, at 'home' I talk Okie.)

Thanks for this post - I really enjoyed it!

maryecronin
May. 5th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you wrote about this, Carrie. As someone who is college-educated and grew up in a blue collar family, I think it's a gift to be able to dwell in two (or more) worlds, and find comfort and community in each. It can only enrich our writing and our ability to connect to a wide range of people.
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bravebethany
May. 5th, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC)
Good topic!
Good topic, Carrie. Class issues find their way into my work as well (it is a part of who we are and is something to consider in the background of a char.) and it can be strongly portrayed in dialogue as the characters reveal who they are in what they say and how they communicate with others. Much of dialogue to me, too, lies in subtext and that can "show" much, even with it's silent-inbetween-the-lines reading.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Good topic!
You are absolutely right about subtext, Bethany. And from what I've read of your works, a master at dialogue.
calepin
May. 5th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
Timely post! I went to a great YA panel at the LA Times Book Festival, in which, among other things, the panelists were talking about this issue. One example that came up was the difference in teen surf culture between Hispanic Oxnard (in Ventura County) and white-bread Orange County, which are maybe 100 miles apart but 2 different worlds. Michele Serros rocked her reading, Spanish and English mixed together exactly the way you hear it in the grocery store, but, you know, funnier.

Looking forward to following along this week!
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 07:43 pm (UTC)
I wish I had been there! It sounds amazing. Thanks for reading this.
helenhemphill
May. 5th, 2008 08:28 pm (UTC)
Bravo! Great post, Carrie. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the week. H.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 08:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Helen.
kellyrfineman
May. 5th, 2008 08:45 pm (UTC)
Phenomenal points, all of them. I'll be back for more as the week progresses.
carriejones
May. 5th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
High praise, from my favorite intellect. I'm going to go happy dance now.
starsoohpretty
May. 6th, 2008 12:36 am (UTC)
One of my favorite comments to hear is "big ol' college word."
My friends and I make it to each other all the time. Because even though we're all intelligent, we're not the upper eschelon.

And we don't use words like "upper eschelon" in every day speech.

I don't even think I spelled "eschelon" correctly.

What I mean is - you're right.
carriejones
May. 6th, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
I love that you guys do that.

Echelon?

What a weird looking word that is.
rhondaparrish
May. 6th, 2008 03:50 am (UTC)
Very nicely said and quite insightful, Carrie.
carriejones
May. 6th, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks.
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
TadMack says:
You make some excellent points -- it is all pretend that there are no socio-economic lines, that we've all shifted and blended into one great big happy amalgamated something. Growing up and being told I tried to "talk White" certainly doesn't give one any indication that there's no socio-economic lines, does it?

And I laugh that you had trouble reading romances and finding the dialogue believable. I had trouble during my MFA reading some 80's YA lit -- sometimes the earnest efforts to appear hip were painful. Thanks for opening up this topic, I shall read on with interest...

WritingYA (http://writingya.blogspot.com)
carriejones
May. 6th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says:
Dialogue in some of those books were almost beautifully bad in their lack of hipness. I'm sorry you had to live through that to get your MFA.

Thanks for reading this, Tad.

krazy_devyn
May. 6th, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
Carrie Jones--you make my head hurt. :-p

I will really have to think about this when I am working on characters.
carriejones
May. 6th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
Do you want me to send you some Advil, Devyn?
sharigreen
May. 6th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC)
Great post -- thanks! Looking forward to your next one.... :)
carriejones
May. 6th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
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