Writing Tips: Dialogue and Mark Twain

by Kendra Bonnett on June 21, 2010

catnav-alchemy-activePost #14 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

MT6When I was young, I came down with laryngitis at least once every cold season. And I’d get it bad. My colds always settled in my throat and chest. Things didn’t improve as I grew older. Worried that I might have a problem with my larynx or something that made me prone to laryngitis, I asked my doctor dad.

Ever one to be skeptical and dismissive of my hypochondria, he quickly put my health fears in their proper perspective. “If you’d ever stop talking and give your throat and larynx a rest, you wouldn’t have laryngitis all the time.” I guess that shut me up…for about three minutes.

I do love to talk. I’m a Gemini. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it. But maybe that’s also why I enjoy writing dialogue and studying the dialogue techniques of others. This time our Writing in Five video brings you the advice and writing tips of one of the masters of American literature. Mark Twain. William Faulkner called him “the father of American literature.”

I would wager that there is no better teacher when it comes to writing dialect.

I thought this was a good topic for discussion because dialogue and dialect are challenges to so many writers. The subject invariably comes up in our writing classes: Should I use dialect? Will people be able to read my dialogue if I use contractions, odd spellings and funny punctuation? How can I capture a person’s distinctive voice?

Twain dedicated himself to the art of dialect. He listened and he read his dialogue out loud–working and reworking it until it SOUNDED right.

He also used something called EYE DIALECT. It’s a technique that tells the reader that the character speaking is uneducated, boorish, a rube, a country hick. It’s called “eye” dialect because while the actual word pronunciation may sound standard, the writer makes his/her point visually. So the word enough becomes “enuff;” says becomes “sez;” and what is spelled “wut.”

There are many interesting techniques for using dialogue and dialect to help define character or amplify a characterization. Twain’s advice: Listen. Study. Practice. Master. He wrote in the American Monthly (1880): “What is known as ‘dialect’ writing looks simple and easy, but is not. It is exceedingly difficult; it has rarely been done well.”

Mark Twain did it well.






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