Building a dialogue voice; using "a" and "an"
Published: June 8, 2010
Q: I’m writing a novel about a family and the children are in junior high and high school. I’m struggling with their dialogue. What I’ve managed to write either sounds too adult or is rife with stereotype. I’m sure that some of the language is outdated, too, as I’m drawing on my own teen years. How can I make this work?
A: When characters are very different than the people in your own day-to-day life, finding the right words to put in their mouths can seem like a mystery. Building a voice—which is what you’re doing when you write dialogue—is an aspect of characterization. In order to write with authenticity, you need to know the characters well.
Start by getting an idea of how this age group sounds in real life before you begin inventing. Immerse yourself in the voices that you want to create. You might find public places where young people gather and keep your ears open. Watch relevant documentaries. Or turn to your own family. Do you have relatives this age? If not, ask around. Perhaps someone you know could put you in touch with teenagers you can interview. Or volunteer at a junior high or high school.
As you look for sources, keep in mind that background, location, and circumstance will make a difference in dialogue. If you’re writing about a family firmly situated in the affluent suburbs of Chicago, listening in on a group of students in the Bronx won’t do the trick. The language will be different, as will the colloquialisms, and frames of reference.
As you listen, pay attention to popular phrases, syntax, and diction. Also, mine the conversations you hear for what you can learn about interactions at this age. What goes unsaid? How does this age group respond to authority, conflict, or praise? Of course, everyone is different, but these observations can help you identify patterns that may authenticate your characters and their dialogue.
After you’ve spent some time listening to and thinking about these youthful voices, you’re bound to find that your particular characters’ voices begin to emerge. The more you practice, the better. Consider writing passages in first person from each of the characters’ perspectives. These won’t end up in the novel, but they will give you an opportunity to work out the kinks and truly hear—and master—their voices.
Authors have written entire novels in youthful voices. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone are just two examples. Don’t get discouraged. This can be done.
Q: Going by the rules of when to use “a” and “an,” I think “an one man show” is correct but “a one man show” sounds right. Which is it?
A: When choosing between “a” and “an,” many think the rule is to use “a” with words that start with consonants and “an” with words that start with vowels. While this is true in many instances, the more accurate rule is to use “a” with words that start with a consonant sound and “an” with words that start with a vowel sound.
The word “one” starts with a vowel, but the sound it makes is the consonant “w.” So, “a one man show” is correct.
Some letters sound like vowels in one word, but sound like consonants in other words. For instance, these words that begin with the letter “h” start with a consonant sound:
She is writing a haiku.
Lynn hopes to spot a hawk while hiking in the mountains.
But these words that begin with the letter “h” start with a vowel sound:
She might have trouble finding an herb for that recipe.
The award was an honor.
Acronyms can be tricky, too, but they conform to the same rule of sound:
She’s graduating with a B.A.
He’s going back to school for an M.F.A.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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