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The Little Things Novice Writers Miss: How Education Impacts Speech

Here at Write Plan we've spent the last few months exposing rookie writing mistakes and showing you how to develop the world beyond your story, build animals into your world, and develop your side characters' motivations. Two weeks ago we explored how to establish character through body language.

Now we're going to tackle another aspect of communication: how education impacts speech and even thought patterns.

In most developed nations, this difference is often so subtle that we don't notice it in real life. People with highly specialized education might have vastly different vocabulary, but most of us use similar terms and sentence structures.

Of course, this doesn't hold true in every part of our world. Many developing nations have little to no education for the average person but still maintain an elite class of highly educated people. In these places, you can often tell a person's class the moment they start speaking.

The majority of fantasy worlds and a great many science fiction worlds lack decent education for the lower classes. Some purposefully restrict education to maintain a class system. Others simply don't have it and never have. Either way, the result is the same: people from different educational backgrounds sound very different.

If you want to add this layer of reality to your story, you'll need to do it in two steps. First, figure out how education works in your setting, including who has access. Second, weave it into your dialogue, and, if you're doing a close POV, into the narration.


NOTE: This section of the article assumes you're creating your own world. If you're working within a real-world context, you can use these questions, but you should spend your time researching the realities of education in that time period/place instead of brainstorming.

To complete this exercise, you'll need your preferred writing tools, any relevant notes about the political or religious structures in your setting, a timer, and at least half an hour. If you're working on a major, world-changing story, you may want to repeat this exercise once for each nation you plan to work with.

STEP ONE: Set a timer for 15 minutes.

STEP TWO: Brainstorm around the concept of education. Consider the following questions:

  • Does the general population have access to any form of education?

  • Who provides this education?

  • Is there a cost involved for the average person at the basic level of education?

  • Is a certain level of education mandatory?

  • Do universities and colleges exist?

  • How exclusive are post-secondary institutions, both in terms of academic achievement and cost?

  • If there's magic, how does education vary for magic users?

STEP THREE: Write everything you've just learned into paragraph form, expanding on the ideas as necessary.

How to build educational differences into your dialogue and narration

Creating your educational system, or at least a basic understanding of it, is the easy part. After all, you went through some form of education yourself, so you have an understanding of how these things work in the real world.

Understanding how it influences people's everyday thoughts, words, and actions is a different story altogether.

In general, people with more education use more complex words and sentence structures in both their thoughts and their conversations. It shows in their writing style.

Showing how your characters' thought and speech patterns change as their education grows is also a great way to express a character arc, especially for younger characters.

If you want to see this done well, read Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. Within a few chapters you'll see the difference between the vocabulary of the commoners, called the skaa, and the aristocracy. The skaa have hardly any education, and some speak in heavy slang.

Over the course of all three books, you'll notice a much subtler shift. Vin, the main character, begins as a street urchin, but her closest companions in her new life are scholars. By the end of the third book, Vin's narration uses larger words and more complex sentence structures. Her way of viewing situations—what she notices when she walks into a room—changes.

Paying careful attention to the way your characters speak and the way viewpoint characters think can help you accomplish the same thing. You can even add a section for education and speech/thought patterns to your extended character profile.

Final advice

Understanding how education impacts a person's everyday thought, speech, and actions, can help you fully immerse readers in the setting you're building, but this isn't something you can learn from writing exercises alone. Study people in real life, on TV, in movies. Listen to the way they speak. Pay attention to your own thoughts and the language you use in everyday life.

And, as always, remember that everything you learn about our world can help you build better, more immersive worlds of your own.

Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of world-building, character development, and story elements that novice writers often neglect. Every month on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss, helping writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.

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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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