Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Thy Dialogue Dost Sound Strange

I want to stress first off that I am not writing this post in response to any particular query or submission -- I never do that, never will. You can continue submit to me without fear of public flogging. Seriously.

Anyway, as I was riding the streetcar to work (you know the ones in the Docker's commercial where the guy and girl see each other and then they run out to catch up to each other only to find out that they both did the same thing? Those streetcars. I ride those to work. I heart San Francisco).. anyway, on the way to work I was mentally narrating everything that was happening in that sort of mystical/stilted dialect that fantasy writers sometimes use when their characters talk.

Like this:

Streetcar driver: "The morning sun is rising over the misty water of the Bay of San Francsico, and the next stop our transporting vehicle will make is Chestnut Street. Those wishing to depart should signal with the bell of stopping."
Rider: "It is my keenest desire to depart, and I will pull the bell. There. It was my desire and I pulled the bell of stopping."
Me: "It has been many moons since I departed on Chestnut Street, but I too will depart at Chestnut since the bell of stopping has been pulled and my legs desire movement."
Streetcar driver: "The stop upon which our wheels rest is Chestnut Street. The gods deem it so."

Annnnnnnnnd so on.

Can I get a ruling on this? I have to admit that while that type of language is rather common when it comes to fantasy and I by no means wish to disparage it wholesale... well, I personally have a bit of a hard time with it. On the other hand, maybe some people find it transporting to imagine a world where people talk differently and the language serves a purpose, so maybe it's just me? Should I drop my bias?

Mini you-tell-me for a Tuesday. How do you feel about this type of dialogue (in its proper context)?


Anonymous said...

I agree that too much stilted dialogue can get annoying. However, can you ever imagine a Fantasy without it? I'm writing a YA Fantasy now and I'm leaving the stilted dialogue to the wise old characters. The young protags are pretty normal in their speech and are sometimes known to make fun of the stuffiness of their elders.

The Anti-Wife said...

This might work for YA fantasy, but personally, don't drop your bias. This sucks!

Aelf'en said...

I can see agreeing with anonymous above re: using the stilted language to denote the wisened old'uns. This is a fairly common device to point out, hey, this old guy has a different set of experiences from the young new-blood!

*has ridden the streetcars to work too... dearly misses SF :( *

Jillian said...

Like any device, this can be done well or poorly. (Love your example, by the way.)

Any fantasy set in a pseudo-medieval time period warrants a dialogue that matches. Contemporary dialogue would never work in this type of setting. In fact, it would lend an unbelievability to the writing that I think would be most distracting.

Good writers can pull this off. Mediocre writers can't. A good writer who is WELL READ and has a good historical concept for the time period he's trying to emulate in his fantasy novel is going to do the best job of all.

But hey, yours wasn't bad, either. :)

Marti said...

If I read something like that, I would be laughing as hard as I am laughing at the example!

Tom in Sarasota said...

I find a little of that type of language goes a long way. I don't mind a little to set the scene or the tone of a piece, but too much and my eyes glaze over and I skip over the text.

Brian said...

To anonymous's point "can you ever imagine a Fantasy without it?": I think that's the author's job--present something original. The author should BE ABLE to imagine fantasy in their own, unique way.

My very problem with a majority of the fantasy on the market is that it's unoriginal. Clever writers might make up for lack of original ideas by finding a unique voice but I think too many writers find that to be too much work.

I guess the counterpoint might be: if you were reading a book set in the 18th century, would you feel the dialogue was stilted when you've got thees and thous flying at you? I heard MT Anderson speak last night and he talked about the research he did for OCTAVIAN NOTHING, trying to recreate the writing and dialogue of the 18th century. THAT we would consider authentic.

But because the only "authenticity" we have in terms of fantasy can be found in the progenitors of the genre, does that make it stilted? Or maybe it's a template whose day has come and gone.

I'm not even sure I have a point any more; I'm just thinking aloud. Oh, wait, maybe my point is: it behooves the author to present something original.

Laurel Amberdine said...

I love the bell of stopping. But it should be Capitalized for Proper Fantasy Emphasis.

Seriously? Anything that distracts from the story is bad. Even if it's well done, once I start noticing vocabulary or sentences or punctuation or weird names, I'm not a happy reader.

I'll give a skillful-seeming voice or dialect a few chapters to make me comfortable, though. If it's consistent and clear enough that I can get into it, that's cool.

Tori Scott said...

That type of dialogue is one of the main reasons I don't read fantasy. :)

Liz said...

I think this type of dialogue falls under the less is more rule.

This type of language may enhance a few characters, but if not done well, it will only build a wall between the reader and the story.

Rode streetcars on my one and only trip to SF for my brother's wedding...wrestled with a stroller and a four month old to do it....and even with those obstacles, it was great fun.

Christopher M. Park said...

You know, I write some fantasy, but this sort of dialogue makes me sad. It gives good fantasy a bad name. I'm with you on that bias.


Jennifer Lynn Barnes said...

I can take it if a subset of characters talk that way, but not if all of them do. Unless, of course, the story is set on a modern day streetcar, in which case, it never gets old.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Almost too busy laughing to comment...

I've never read much fantasy that reads like this. Giving each character his or her own speech style is effective, but as with the use of any dialect, a sprinkle is more effective than a storm.

But really, people who think that all fantasy dialogue is written like this haven't read G.R.R. Martin or Carol Berg or Radford or Hamilton... well, really any of the fantasy I read, I guess. Even Tad Williams, the windiest of the windy, does decent dialogue.

CMonster said...

All your base are belong to us!

This doesn't sound like fantasy to me, this sounds like bad video game translations.

Heidi the Hick said...

You do that too? Narrate your life in different voices? What a relief!

This made me giggle out loud.

Sometimes (if it's well done) that faux-historical speech affectation suits the story and is fun to read, but other times it really just bogs the whole thing down. There are writers who think that in a fantasy story there must be twice the amount of words necessary. People in fantasy land have time for extra words.

Was the streetcar driver wizened and white bearded? Or bald with a scar down one side of his face????

Anonymous said...

It is not at all like butter

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm with Starbucks; the fantasy I read doesn't rely on dialogue like this.

In fact, Nathan, you sounded more Monty Python-esque to me than fantasy. Which made this possibly more fun than you'd intended.

(how would Python handle "Sweet, my answer is get out of the car"????)

Happy Days said...

It is my desire to agree with Tori.
There! My agreement is cast and it is done!

Nathan Bransford said...

By my troth I do possess some funny Readers of the Blog.

B.E. Sanderson said...

To me, it depends on how it flows into the story. Your example would jerk me out of the story so hard, I'd leave my teeth behind. Sort of like reading a medieval fantasy and as the villian is spurned by the heroine, he comes off with "Yo, mama, why u gotta be so cold?".

Niteowl said...

I dunno, I've read a smattering of fantasy (Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Jordan), and have never come across this sort of dialogue.

And when I write fantasy, it's full on Compton-Grade Ebonics. Or New Englander, can't go wrong with that. Look where it got the Kennedeys (oh, dead or dead-drunk, nevermind then)

sylvia said...

I hate it with the single exception of original Star Trek.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I wish we still used Elizabethan dialogue/syntax in contemporary fiction.

"Done to death by slanderous tongue
Was the Hero that here lies"

sure beats

"This dead man suffered because of slander."

PattiTheWicked said...

If a character sounds like every sentence he says should be followed with "and then I roll my twenty-sided dice," then yea, verily I say, thy dialogue should be flushed into the Whirling Vortex of Flushiness.

Dave said...

I am approaching a scene where the dialog will be symbolic and fantastical. It will be the proposition to work as a spy and the listener will accept the offer.

It is killing me to write it. Tracking the dialog between three characters and making it sound convincing and yet lofty or noble or anything but ordinary is taking lots of time.

Another scene that isn't working out is where I introduce what can affectionately be called "Hitler Youth" - characters with those types of views - the evil, the authoritarians and the narrow minded. It's tough to let that seep slowly into the conversation and not make it feel superimposed on the story.

Nathan Bransford said...


Actually, that sounds kind of good.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

b.e., I'm pretty sure what you're talking about is a cross-genre piece. That's supposedly hot right now. :P

Miri said...

I dislike the idea that of course it works in YA fantasy, because doesn't everything, but that's probably just me. YA fantasy ain't what it used to be. It has plenty of intelligent, critical readers nowadays.

Okay, genre-defensive soapbox over. I think that kind of language is fine in moderation, i.e. wise old characters, but even then it's best used very carefully (and it's more likely to make me poke fun at them than anything else). I agree that fantasy, especially medievaloid fantasy (which I'm veerrrry carefully writing at the moment), warrants a different vocabulary--the second I see medieval knights referring to each other as "homeboys," with or without homeboy phones, is the second I lose faith in the genre--but if it sounds like someone ripped off Shakespeare, that's also a problem.

And this kind of dialogue has a tendency to go purple if you're not careful with it. Your example reminded me of The Eye of Argon, and that's a bad thing.

jnr said...

it's fine to show a character talking to himself or herself in an over the top way. especially if he or she is a quirky character who tends to conceal the fact from others.

S.F. said...

If there's a theme to the comments it seems to be that fantasy fans and writers hate this dialogue style as much as anyone. Assuming this is how fantasy is, is like assuming all sci-fi must have a wise-cracking robot (oohhh, I just got kicked in the bolts! Sorry, the nuts!) or all literary novels have to be depressing and have the heroine die melodramatically in the end. It happens (see above example "The Eye of Argon" for examples of bad fantasy... *shudder*), but no one likes it. Least of all the people actually writing in the genre.
This is the kind of prejudice that can make you look silly in the wrong company.
A coupla years back I got into an impromptu discussion on Islamic philosophy with a co-worker who'd been reading Frank Herbert's excellent scifi/fantasy "Dune" (an intricate dissection of humanity and its strengths, heavily influenced by Islamic thought. Also a genre classic). Another coworker walked past and laughed at us because, and I quote: 'Listen to you guys: "The author believed..." like it was a real book with a real author." She got the Death-Stares of Doom. We were just flabbergasted that someone could be so simultaneously intellectual-elitist and so monumentally ignorant all at once that neither of us could speak. Neither of us intended to treat her like an idiot, but she was someone we both knew read reasonably widely and we honestly could not speak after her condescending, stupid and outright surprising outburst. Our reflexive looks were the worst sort of pitying contempt that its possible to come up with, all the worse for their sincerity and spontaneity. She pretty much ran away.
Protect yourself from the Death Stare of Doom. Continue to hate the overblown dialogue but don't assume all fantasy is like this, or should be. Or get the Amazing Magical Non-Idiot Looking Thingy, only available with ten plot coupons and an epic quest.

A Paperback Writer said...

I thought Nathan's example sounded like Jane Austen does Frisco.
Actually, I agree with Jillian and b.e.: the dialogue needs to match the setting and the tone.
And niteowl, I cringed to see you put Tolkien and Brooks in the same category. Ugh. The master and the cheap imitation. Shudder.

Tia said...

I have read a lot of modern fantasy, and very few has dialog like this. The Ill-Made Mute is the only one I can think of offhand. The dialog is usually unobtrusive. You don't miss it any more than you would miss Latin in a story about Ancient Rome.

However, Mark Twain pulled of some hilarious "period" dialog in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The scenes that went back and forth between modern (Twain-era) and Dark Ages dialog just cracked me up.

Lisa said...

I don't happen to read fantasy, but it's a nice change when formal speech is used in historical fiction or even as an affectation for a quirky character. The speech was appropriately stiff in The Remains of the Day, for example and I can't imagine it sounding any other way. Now I would not have wanted to read another book with that type of stilted jargon right after that one. I think the dialogue in a lot of contemporary fiction, tends to sound a bit too similar, so mixing it up once in a while (maybe not to the extreme of the cable car example!) might make things interesting.

adrienne said...

I have this same problem with general historical stuff too. I always cite the recent film Marie Antoinette as a lovely way of revisioning the past as something very akin to the present, with kings and queens who were also people and teenagers.

I think also people forget that what was written down in the past was written by a select very educated few. That we never read what "the common man" spoke like.
As such let us not forget that people swore, and spoke in sentence fragments. The f-word for example and the c-word were used to a ridiculous extent in the 17th century especially by that fabulous man, Rochester. And in poetry none the less!

A Paperback Writer said...

get yourself a copy of the complete works of Robert Burns, if you want colorful language. Ignore all the famous poems that are clean enough to be in anthologies, and dig into the racy stuff you've never seen before. Granted, most of it's in Scots, so check the glossary often, but I'm willing to bet that much of this is indeed the voice of the common man.

adrienne said...

Ooh thanks paperback writer! Will do! Though I mean, the point of my post was to point out that people did write racy stuff in the good old days of yore and I cited Rochester (who I know isn't the "common man" but still . . .). Possibly my "common man" wasn't quite the right way to put things.

But dude, all about finding new and exciting racy stuff! Thanks!

AmyB said...

This issue is a real frustration for me. Most modern fantasy books have their characters speak in modern parlance, minus any slang or obviously modern references. As a fantasy reader, I prefer it this way, and I wrote my own fantasy novel accordingly.

However, what do you do when it comes to characters swearing? Mine swear quite a bit. I have one swear word that is specific to the book and derives from its setting, but other than that, I have my characters swear normally, using the f-word or whatever else seems appropriate. I prefer this to making up a whole pretend set of swear words, though I worry some readers will find it jarring.

But if you go back to the real medieval English, it's completely unreadable and unusable. My characters are not going to say, "Stow your widdes!" They're going to say, "Shut up!"

I am constantly frustrated by vocabulary limitations. I had a scene where a character was "siphoning off funds" from the Duke. Critters complained; siphoning is a modern word. So I changed it to "sidelining funds for his own use" and got nailed for sidelining, also modern. Stow your widdes, critters! I think all I'm left with now is "stealing." :(

Peter R said...

To me, this sort of language is shear laziness on the part of the writer – far too much telling and not enough showing. It is not normally as overt as Nathan's example, but a lot of fantasy has this sort of stuff scatted throughout it especially in descriptions. Too few fantasy writers take the time to fully immerse their readers in the fantasy world of the story or credit the reader with a lively imagination of their own. Sure the reader needs references to the real world, but most fantasy I’ve read relies far too heavily on real world references.

I love the ‘bell of stopping,' Nathan, but it should have a name which is consistent with the world in which it exists (as should the transport vehicle) - an extension of the world which has been built thus far. The same is true of the word ‘siphoning’ – to my mind whether the word is ‘modern’ or not is irrelevant provided the concept of siphoning has already been established as part of the world being built.

Keep the bias Nathan, it’s a sign of a lazy imagination.

Ps. I hate the idea that something is not good enough for adult readers, but is ok to fob off on YA readers.

Mary Paddock said...

I feel strongly enough about it to put the book down and move on to the next. The only time I have any tolerance for this is when it's done humorously. Thees and thous and period words and phrases are fine; stilted, overwritten sentences are not.

Bernita said...

Hera's tits...

Annalee said...

Well if it's a bias, I share it too. It's just cheesy.

Just because other writers have done it (better) doesn't make it a good idea. It's important to me in world-building to be able to justify every choice. If I can't explain, in one hundred words or less, why a society behaves a certain way (be it how they talk, how they get around town, or who and how they worship), they shouldn't be behaving that way.

'Because I need them to for the story to work' is a lame reason, but 'because that's what J.R.R. Tolkien did much better than I ever could' is a much, much lamer one.

Heidi the Hick said...

Ok, you must click on the link above the the Eye of's's'm speechless....

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous #3.

Also, no one should ever use stilted dialogue. If it is stilted you are doing it wrong. That, however, does not mean you cannot use Elizabethan English.

Personally, I prefer more old-style dialogue, like Tolkien's. Fantasy with dialogue written how people today speak colloquially often ends up seeming rather stupid.

Of course I am not the average reader, nor writer, for that matter.

Twill said...


The dialog is bad for reasons having nothing to do with dialect. Here's a modern translation, without changing the meaning.

Streetcar driver: "The morning sun is rising over the misty water of the Bay of San Francisco, and the next stop our cablecar will make is Chestnut Street. Anyone wanting off should pull the stop bell."

Rider: "I want to get off, and I'll pull the bell. There. I wanted to stop and I pulled the stop bell."

Me: "It's been a long time since I got off on Chestnut Street, but I'll get off there since the stop bell got pulled and I want to stretch my legs."

Streetcar driver: "This is Chestnut Street. [Next line deleted due to pseudo-government status of cablecars in SF and separation of church and state.]"


The word siphon is Greek - note the "PH pronounced F". Siphons date to approx 1500 BC.

The word "funds" may be more suspect, dating only back to Old French.

Is "sideline" a railroad term? Clearly worse.

What about

Or my favorite -
"glean off"?

What creatures in your world are known to be subtle thieves?
"fox off with"?
"mouse away?"

Once you start running with the idea, there's no shortage of self-evident alternate terms that are not modern usage.

AmyB said...

Twill, thanks! Looks like the critter who objected to "siphoning" was wrong. Which means I can put that word back on the table. "Sidelining" is apparently a sports term, so I'll avoid using it from now on.

I find it irritating that I should be expected to know the etymology of every single word in my novel. I've always assumed that the characters in my novel are not speaking English at all, and the words on the page are a translation of sorts. Thus, I think the "translation" should use the vocabulary most understandable and relevant to the reader.

j h woodyatt said...

I can't stand it in high fantasy, and seeing it makes my blood boil over.

It bugs me even what it isn't high fantasy. With very few exceptions, I have refused to buy books that indulge in it. I can think of two exceptions: Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and Susannah Clarke's book. I still haven't found the time to bother finishing either of those.

Dayna_Hart said...

oh, Nathan, what horrid Fantasy books have you been forced to read?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that Argon thingie. As a game I tried to see if he would use the word "miscreant" in the first several paragraphs, but I was disappointed. Darn.

This section, however, did not disappoint:

"The barbarian seated himself upon a stool at the wenches side, exposing his body, naked save for a loin cloth brandishing a long steel broad sword..."


Steven Till said...

I'm not a fan of this type of dialogue either (in any context), and personally, I've seen a shift in some fantasy novels over the past decade away from this type of language to more real, gritty, earthy segments of dialogue. George R.R. Martin with his A Song of Ice and Fire series has been instrumental in this change.

Anonymous said...

That type of dialogue is good for a comic novel. If there is such a thing.

Alyssa said...

There's a huge difference between period/place-appropriate writing and just bad dialogue. Shakespeare flows quite well. Tolkien flows. I think the trick of unusual dialogue is to say aloud every piece of dialogue in your manuscript. If it sounds authentic, even if it's weird, keep it. If it sounds ludicrous, you can't expect to keep ploughing along in that vein.

Cinthia McCracken said...

You made me laugh so hard I farted. :O

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