12 February 2008

The Marx Fantasy Dialogue Scale

In her book Writing for Animation, Comics, and Games, Christy Marx writes, “Creating the right fantasy dialogue depends a great deal on how you use contractions, on your word arrangement and sentence structure, and on the vocabulary you employ.”

And she provides a handy table of possibilities--

I came up with the Marx Fantasy Dialogue Scale to differentiate the various ways in which fantasy dialogue could be spoken, ranging from colloquial/modern (No. 1) to High Epic/Poetic (No. 5). Here’s an example:
1. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.

2. He does not know what he is doing.

3. He does not know what he does.

4. He knows not what he does.

5. He knows not what his purpose is, for confusion lies heavy upon him.
I imagine a Level 6 as well, called Yoda-Prime: “His purpose he does not know, for upon him confusion lies heavy.”

The first step up Marx’s scale is getting rid of contractions, a trick that writers of historical fiction also use to signal that characters are not of the readers’ time and place. The problem is that approach is that the people of the past used contractions, sometimes the same ones we use and sometimes different (“’tis” instead of “it’s”; “I’ll not” instead of “I won’t”). Presumably, characters in a fantasy world would use contractions, too. And people’s speech patterns vary according to their personalities, education, class background, situations, and so on.

So while I suspect Marx’s scale can be handy for spurring thought about how to make an individual character sound (and sound different from the author), I’m wary about relying too much on simple tricks with contractions and participles.


SamRiddleburger said...

You're right -- A language without contractions seems like one of those movies where all the props and costumes are clean and new.

By the way, this post reminded me of a question:
Lots of fantasy books refer to a "high speech," which is sometimes a common tongue among different nations or some such.
Where did that get started?

J. L. Bell said...

Sounds like an authorial convenience, a way to get around the language barriers that most worlds would have.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, the aristocracies of many nations spoke French. Russian nobles sometimes spoke nothing but. That produced the notion of a "lingua franca" for communicating across many cultures (though that phrase, paradoxically, is in Latin, not French).

So there's some real-world precedent for a "high" form of speech working across many nations. But more common, I suspect, are "pidgin" dialects cobbled together for commercial purposes, not high at all.

It looks like Stephen King is one of the authors who uses the "High Speech" trope, so his books have undoubtedly spread the idea.

I prefer E. Nesbit's boldfaced way of tackling the challenge.

mta said...

I think the "high speech" convention might also originate with dialects like "Hochdeutsch" (High German) and Old High French -- which, somewhat like BBC English, acted as a national upper- and middle-class dialects mediating between several regional dialects.

Due to the class-based arrangement of such languages, there was the appearance of "cleanness" and Olympian impartiality, even heroism, attached to the concept of a "high" speech as opposed to "low" local dialects ... which looks ugly in retrospect. I mention this only because a lot of "high fantasy" in the past (and perhaps in the present?) had a weird elitist, Royalist bent.

All the samite was white. There was never mud on them horses.

Anyone speak "thieves' cant"?


mta said...

Whoops -- sorry about the extra "a" in the above post.

I guess I need to learn to speak New High English.


J. L. Bell said...

Well, no wonder I couldn't understand a word!