Have you ever heard your own voice on a recorder and been a little stunned at the way you sound? It's a bit different than what you hear every day. Maybe there's a rhythm to the way you talk, or a certain way you say words that you never noticed before.
The way you talk says a lot about you. It can tell us where you are from, your education level, and sometimes we can even infer your background.
We call all of that your "diction."
Today, our goal is to unscramble diction. We'll go over the definition, look at some examples, and suss out why writers need to pay attention to diction. We'll even look at the types and see what sets all this apart from syntax. You'll even use diction in a sentence. Fun stuff.
Let's get started.
'My Fair Lady'Credit: Warner Brothers
What Is Diction (And the Types of Diction in Writing)
One of the most famous lines in movie history is from My Fair Lady, and I think it encapsulates what today's lesson is about.
"The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain."
That will only mean something to you if you've seen the movie, so let's get to the lessons so the rest of you can catch up.
Diction is the selection of words that establish voice, style, or locale. It can be used by authors to set themselves apart or used to imbue a similar designation on their characters and stories.
Diction can also mean how someone says something. Whether that's how an author says something or the way a character says something that allows us to understand their class, creed, race, or citizenship.
'Mean Girls'Credit: Paramount Pictures
- command of language
- gift of gab
The Diction Meaning for Writers
As writers, we should embrace all things diction. This is what can set us apart from the pack. This is where your voice as a creative person gets tested the most. While there are many amazing authors and screenwriters, all their voices are unique and special.
And as you develop the way you write, your special voice will come to the surface as well.
Think about how Mark Twain writes so incredibly different than Gillian Flynn. But both know how to tell the story of a firebrand watching their own funeral. Or how Pat Conroy describes the marshes of South Carolina versus how Sue Monk Kidd addresses the same locale in The Secret Life of Bees.
Screenplays have similar nuance. Like how James Cameron's Aliens is full of short sentences and cold space. In contrast, Shane Black's Lethal Weapon script is full of quips and zingers.
When it comes to writing people with voice, you're making characterizations through words. How they talk can reflect a rich or poor family. Maybe you use slang or colloquialisms which signify they're from a particular area. As storytellers, these are important choices we make as we develop characters.
Your diction matters!
'Gone Girl'Credit: Warner Brothers
The Types of Diction
There are many different types of diction. Check them out and let them inspire your writing.
Feel like writing something fancy? Formal diction is a sophisticated way of writing something. You use proper grammar, avoid slang, and speak professionally.
Casual conversation? You need informal diction. This is more conversational and is representative of how people talk in real life.
Trying to impress your friends or writing something for academia? Pedantic diction is usually how people write in academic writing. Or maybe you have a character who is a professor or highly educated. Use this sort of writing.
Want to talk in a way that is endemic to a certain region or ideas? You need colloquial diction. These are expressions like "y'all" and "jawn." They specify certain places and people.
Are you and your buds chewing the flap? You need some slang diction. These are words and phrases that are shortened, modified, or altered to mean something else. You can see people should "spill the tea" or that something cool is "lit." You know, what all the hip people say!
Hard to describe something? Maybe you need some abstract diction. They can help you talk about emotions or smells or tastes, something that isn't tangible but evokes your imagination.
Say something with power, direct meaning, and use concrete diction to do it. These are words and sentences used to describe literal things. Like you could say, "I sat on a chair" or "I took a walk" and have no other meaning to what happened. You are literally telling us what happened.
We all loved to wax poetic at times, and poetic diction allows us to do that. These are rhythmic words that have a specific theme. you want them to evoke harmony and really be descriptive. Aristotle called these "ornamental words."
'Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery'Credit: Netflix
Diction and Syntax
As a writer, I often get confused with all the literary devices I have to remember. So what is syntax compared to diction?
Well, the syntax is the order of the words in a sentence. Yup, that's it. Diction is the word choice to express certain things about people or the author.
What Is Diction in Literature?
The diction literary definition is the same as the one we spelled out above.
Diction Examples in Literature
In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we get several different types of diction, but the most famous comes from Sherlock himself. The pedantic detective has a very specific way he speaks. Check it out below.
"It seemed to me that a careful examination of the room and the lawn might possibly reveal some traces of this mysterious individual. You know my methods, Watson. There was not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry. And it ended by my discovering traces, but very different ones from those which I had expected."
Of course, we can't do one of these posts without me talking about one of my favorite books of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. In the book, Harper Lee deftly jumps from so many different dictions. We have the country people, the legal people, the erudite neighbors, and the sharecroppers.
We also have the voices of adults versus the voice of children.
One of the greatest characters ever written, Atticus Finch, changes diction based on who he talks to in the book. This reveals his brain and also his empathy. In this passage, he talks to his daughter kindly and clearly.
"You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change."
Diction Examples in Movies and TV
The beauty of movies and TV is that diction comes in many different ways. It comes in the screenplays when writers put their voices down and craft the voices of characters. And it also comes when the actors work with directors to bring life to characters.
One of the specific diction choices I really enjoyed was how Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. He plays Lincoln as a man of the people in most scenes. Tony Kushner writes him that way as well.
But then Lincoln gives a speech to soldiers, and the storyteller side comes out. It's a great character shift that shows the depth of a man.
Another great example of this comes in the code-switching Stringer Bell does in The Wire.
Stringer Bell is a drug kingpin who wants to go legit. When he speaks to people on the street, he uses their lingo. But he code-switches when he has to deal with politicians and moneymen. This is excellent writing and adds another layer to this already amazing TV show.
Summing Up "What Is Diction and the Types of Diction in Writing"
Now that you're a master of the written and spoken word, it's time to get out there and put it into your work. Is there a specific character that you can elevate by focusing on the way they talk?
Or is there a way you want to develop your voice on the page even further?
There are so many opportunities, and I can't wait to see how you employ your knowledge.
And hit me up in the comments to tell me if you have any other questions.