Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Writing Period Dialogue

One of the challenges in writing period pieces is crafting believable dialogue. The key word here is “believable” – and paradoxically realistic period dialogue often is not believable. It’s more important that the dialogue sound right to the average audience than that it past muster with a historian or linguist.

If you’re over a certain age you probably remember the brouhaha over Kevin Costner’s bad British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (story by Pen Densham, screenplay by Pen Densham & John Watson). But it was a strange criticism – people from that time period would have been speaking in some form of Old English. We wouldn’t understand a word they were saying. So why do we care that Costner’s accent was bad when he wasn’t even speaking the correct language?

We care because it just didn’t sound right. It was distracting. Now fortunately as writers we don’t have to worry about the actors’ accents. But we do have to worry about the construction of our dialogue.

There are actually two types of period dialogue to address. The first is dialogue from more recent history – say the last 300 years – where the language is basically the same as ours but different expressions, idioms, phrasing and slang were in vogue. The second is dialogue from times when people spoke what amounts to a foreign language even if it was a forerunner of English.

In both of these cases it’s first important to strip away modern slang words and terms. Obviously nobody’s going to say “LOL” in the 1990’s or in the 1690’s. But some terms are a little trickier. Would someone use the term “road rage” in 1975? What makes this hard is that we’re so used to talking in modern phrasing we do it without thinking.

For movies set in the last 300 years you may need to do a little research into the period. It’s particularly useful to read letters and things from the time to get a sense of how people used words. Though keep in mind that until only recently people tended to be much more formal in their writing than in their speech.

Dropping in archaic terms can help set the mood. It can even be fun, particularly in more recent time periods when we have fond memories of the slang. Consider these lines of dialogue from scenes set in the ‘80s from an early draft of Hot Tub Time Machine by Josh Heald:

“Genius! Man, not to get all fag on you, but I’m digging your fresh threads, bro.”

“You guys a couple of spazzes?”

And the movie 13 Going on 30 (written by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa) drops slang like “dorkus,” “freakazoid” and “totally” into its ‘80s scenes.

You might load up the dialogue with period slang and phrasing for comedic effect, but in general it’s best to use that kind of thing sparingly for flavor. Try reading something more than 100 years old. It can be difficult to slog through. You want your audience to be able to understand your characters!

For time periods before modern English the best approach is similar to what you would do when writing dialogue in English that would actually be spoken in a foreign language (see my post on foreign language dialogue).

You’ll want to avoid most slang and idiom altogether and write in a slightly more formal voice. Avoiding contractions often helps things sound period (for example, using “do not” instead of “don’t”). Consider some of the dialogue from the second draft of the Gladiator screenplay (revised by John Logan based on the script by David Fanzoni):

From Gladiator: “The first thing I shall do is honor him with games worthy of his majesty.”

A modern character might say something more like, “the first thing I’m going to do is honor him with some cool games.” Now consider this one:

From Gladiator: “Should Caesar permit, I’ll go home. I’ve been away too long. I’ve forgotten my wife’s face and I barely know my son.”

A modern version might be “If Caesar lets me, I’ll go home. I’ve been away so long I barely remember what my wife and son look like.” But the more formal phrasing sounds right to us, even though these characters would actually be speaking in a completely different language.

Now things get really tricky. You don’t want all your characters to sound alike. You’ll want to make your upper class characters well spoken and your lower class characters crass. You can also vary things like how verbose characters are, how blunt, how obsequious, how honest. These kind of things require more attention in a period script than in a contemporary one.

When you’re thinking about character and conflict and making your scenes work it’s difficult to avoid the occasional modern phrase. So you’ll probably have to do at least one pass in the polish phase just to weed out things that sound off.

I also like to have a few friends read the script and instruct them to make a mark next to any line of dialogue that strikes them as off. Since we’re talking about a fairly subjective idea of what sounds right it’s useful to get multiple opinions.

Ultimately good period dialogue feels natural. We should be caught up in the story and characters, not in the way they speak.