Tips For Writing Period Dialogue
What people say, and how they say it, tells us a lot.
Vocabulary, syntax, cadence, rhythm. They’re all clues about education, class, income and where someone grew up.
Action is character, as Aristotle once said (or was it William Goldman?), but dialogue also reveals character. People are what they do and say.
This isn’t a news flash. Everyone who has opened Final Draft software knows dialogue will make or break a screenplay. Writing dialogue that is natural and compelling, and in which each character has a distinctive voice, may be the toughest challenge in screenwriting.
And the challenge is even tougher when you’re writing a period piece.
When you’re writing a story set in the present day, you can absorb the elements of dialogue – vocabulary, syntax, cadence, rhythm – standing in line at the grocery store or watching television news. You can’t do that if your story is set in the Deep South of the early 1800s.
Just as there are many paths to the summit, there are many ways to write dialogue that is appropriate to the time period of your story. Please allow me to share some of the tools I discovered while writing Freedom Fort, which won the period/historical/war category of the 2016 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest.
In Freedom Fort, two runaway slaves meet en route to a sanctuary in the wilderness of Spanish Florida that draws escaped slaves from across the South. But, before they can build new lives as free men, they must help defend the settlement against invading U.S. troops and Creek mercenaries.
It is an Underground meets The Alamo retelling of historic events following the War of 1812 with a cast of characters that includes plantation owners, British officers, Creek warriors, Andrew Jackson and slaves – some educated, some not.
Unable to eavesdrop on the conversations of those folks, I first turned to a popular literature of the time, slave narratives. Slave narratives were popular in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century before the Civil War. Abolitionists published these intensely personal – and often horrific – stories of escaped slaves to drive public discussion about slavery. Hundreds of these slave narratives are available at Documenting the American South, a digital publishing initiative sponsored by the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I read dozens of these narratives, immersing myself in the language of the time. In effect, listening to dozens of voices.
The narratives also provide graphic details about the cruelty of slavery, including the use of stinging nettles to whip slaves, which were incorporated into my screenplay.
Letters are another useful source for the language of the period. A detailed accounting of events – from the viewpoint of the United States government, anyway – leading to the battle that is the climax of Freedom Fort is found in a series of letters between government officials and military officers. The letters – each with a distinct voice – were another opportunity to immerse myself in the vocabulary, syntax, cadence and rhythm of speech in 1816.
And what better guarantee of authentic dialogue than taking a character’s own words and putting them in your screenplay? A scene in Freedom Fort gives new meaning to “exposition dump” when Major General Andrew Jackson dictates a letter during an urgent trip to the outhouse.
Unless your story is set in the Stone Age, there are certain to be letters, essays, poems and novels of the period. And the array of material available for free online is staggering. Again, no news flash there.
A contemporary help for the period dialogue in Freedom Fort was the book Everyday Life in the 1800s: A Guide for Writers, Students & Historians. The chapter “Slang and Every Day Speech” was a big help, of course. But just knowing about the food, home furnishings, clothing and amusements of the period gives your dialogue a greater ring of truth. The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life series covers a number of time periods, from the Middle Ages to Prohibition.
Writing dialogue is hard. Writing period dialogue is harder still.
Soak in the language of the time.
Read, read, read. Your eye will train your ear.
Clint Williams is a former newspaper reporter and editor with stops at The Arizona Republic and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He paddled a kayak more than 400 miles from the headwaters of Georgia’s Chattahoochee River to the Gulf of Mexico, passing the ruins of the fort that is the setting for much of Freedom Fort. You can follow him on Twitter @ClintW3