Modern Dialogue In An Old Setting

Dialogue is never a transcript of real speech. It is always a believable rendition; done badly, a contrivance. Some writers are linguists who aim for a close approximation of an historical period, all the while knowing that a true transcript would not be understood by the modern reader. But in other types of stories, dialogue is so anachronistic that it draws attention to itself: It then becomes metafictive.

I’m interested in when writers can get away with anachronistic dialogue and when they cannot, because I know from experience in critique groups that there can be low tolerance for modern dialogue in old settings. It will be highlighted. Is this because I’m doing it incorrectly, or because some readers simply don’t like it, always will?

As case study, the TV series Dickinson is interesting. This series is a 2019 story based loosely on the teenage life of American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). If rendered authentically, the writers would have been writing dialogue reminiscent of upper middle class American English as it sounded in the late 1840s.

However, the writers decided not to go there. Instead, they chose to write much of the dialogue with contemporary idioms and slang, some of it inspired by the Internet.

“You’re really leaning in to this whole housewife thing, aren’t you.”
“Eat shit, Emily.”

In the official teaser trailer below, you’ll even see Emily make use of modern hand signs — signs which an 1840s audience would not understand.

Why write anachronistic dialogue?

The advantages of modern dialogue in an 1840s setting are clear: Emily is now a highly relatable character. Not only that, but Emily uses modern language where the older, less empathetic characters (e.g. her parents) do not. This is a clear clue to the audience: We are to empathise with Emily.

I also happen to be listening to the audiobook of Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas at the moment. Before downloading it I checked out a review, which included this observation, by someone who says Tsiolkas is ‘no prose stylist’:

Fortunately, his characters speak not in the stilted Charlton Hestonisms perilous to biblical fictioneers, but in blasts of steaming vulgarity that breathe pungent life into the ancient setting.

Rob Doyle in The Guardian

This demonstrates demonstrates the tightrope traversed by any writer delving into the past. By writing deliberately anachronistic dialogue, we can at least avoid the pitfall of sounding like Charlton Heston.

Writing modern dialogue is like balancing a tight rope.
Brian Wildsmith’s “The Circus”, 1970

Sometimes, to make your characters speak as they would have would alienate them from a modern audience. This is why Downton Abbey actors speak with modern Thames Estuary accents rather than the Queen’s English of the era. Even the Queen’s English has changed within the Queen’s own lifetime. Look up her earliest broadcasts and you’ll hear the difference.

Why does anachronistic dialogue work so well in Dickinson?

MODERN DIALOGUE IS INTRODUCED EARLY

After a voice over introduction, almost the first dialogue we hear out of Emily’s mouth is, “That’s such bullshit!” This phrasing, and the word ‘bullshit’ would not have been in Emily Dickinson’s active vocabulary. Her response to fetching water from the well because she is a girl provokes a chuckle in the audience — her modern dialogue is comically dissonant. Importantly, we will now accept such dissonance, understanding it is deliberate.

THE OVERALL MOOD IS EQUALLY ANACHRONISTIC

In a TV show the storytellers can make use of all sorts of things to create a modern tone: In Dickinson’s case there’s the modern music by Tony K, Khalid, Jerrod Nieman and others.

Then there are lines from Emily Dickinson’s poems which pop up on the screen in handwriting font, reminiscent of other modern shows in which this technique is used to depict text messaging.

THERE IS AN OVERT LINK TO THE PRESENT DAY

Each night the character of Emily Dickinson visits Death, a figure of her Emo imagination, who arrives in a carriage drawn by translucent white horses. In the first episode she gets into the carriage with Death and he gives her some life advice which shows her, and the audience, that he can see into the future. He tells her that in 200 years time she will be the Dickinson everyone remembers. The ‘200 years’ is a clear signal: This version of Emily Dickinson speaks to a modern audience. She was ahead of her time, this says, and she’d have been better off living in the future, with us.

The series becomes less metafictive after the first episode. Having accepted the tone of the show, we are not left to sink fully into the story.

METAHUMOUR

This is subtle, but Emily’s best friend tells Emily during an argument in episode one that she is not lucky like Emily, coming from a well-off background. Her entire family have just died. (This is comically brushed off by Emily’s mother especially — a comment on how death was more normal back then.) Next, Sue says that without marrying Emily’s brother (despite being romantically in love with Emily) she ‘will literally starve’.

This sounds like modern dialogue because the meaning of ‘literally’ has expanded in contemporary English and is used now as a simple intensifier, not as the inverse of ‘figuratively’. At first glance this feels modern, but the (dark) joke is that Sue will indeed starve, because this was the times she lived in.

Anachronistic dialogue works when the audience is encouraged to laugh at it. Perhaps it doesn’t work so well in a story more serious in tone.

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