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Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Cover of the first edition of Alanna: The First Adventure. Young woman standing beside a horse.

YA Fantasy

Published in 1983 by Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Example of great dialogue

Alanna trades places with her twin brother, Thom, disguising herself as a boy so she can train to become a knight.

Things to Emulate

Tamora Pierce is a master of dialogue. Once a scene is set, dialogue tags are almost unnecessary because each character has such a distinct way of speaking, even when there are more than two characters present. The brilliance of Pierce's dialogue is in the details. The rhythm of how each character speaks and the words they use give the reader a clear sense of each person, helping to build their character without exposition.

Alanna: "The only thing I know is I jump when I'm told to and I have no free time." (Chapter 2: The New Page)

Thom: "I think he's been thrown off track where it concerns me. I play it stupid here." (Chapter 6: Womanhood)

Alanna's quick temper and closed-off nature are mirrored in her curtness. Her education is evident in the structure of her speech, but also shows her lack of interest in bookish things. The simplicity of the words she uses is in contrast to the vocabulary of her brother Thom, who has a more scholarly inclination. Her education and intelligence come out in the instances she does speak in extended sentences. Many of these are carefully constructed insults or blunt observations.

Alanna: "I may be only eleven, but some things even an idiot knows. You don't make a lot of noise and fog the air with incense in a sickroom, Myles!" (Chapter 4: Death in the Palace)

Alanna: "I'd love to go. D'you think it's true, that the gods were afraid the Old Ones would challenge them, so they rained fire on the Eastern Lands?" (Chapter 6: Womanhood)

These small distinctions continue across all the characters. The pages who have been raised at the palace speak more formally, even in casual conversation. Their sentences usually have simple constructions. John, heir to the throne, speaks with more formality and care than the other noble pages, signalling his diplomatic education. His speech is largely free of slang. When he wants to exert his authority, he speaks like the adults, indicating his position of authority over the other pages.

John: "Listen. We must be sure. Gary—see if anyone at the stables knows what happened. Perhaps Alan will tell me something. And remember—we have to do it his way. He'd be ashamed if he thought we were fighting his battles." (Chapter 3: Ralon)

The adult nobility (and educated adults) use more complex vocabulary and their speech is formal. While the pages' dialogue is usually only a sentence or two before being broken up by a tag or a beat, the adult nobility usually speak in multiple sentences without a break. Their sentences have more complex constructions, giving the feeling that they are more knowledgeable than the younger characters.

Mistress Cooper: "Listen to me. Your place in life you can always change, whether you have the Gift or not. But you cannot change what the gods have made you. The sooner you accept that, the happier you will be." (Chapter 6: Womanhood)

Duke Gareth: "You're here, Alan of Trebond, to learn what it is to be a knight and a noble of Tortall. It's not easy. You must learn to defend the weak, to obey your overlord, to champion the cause of right. Someday you may even be able to tell what right is." (Chapter 2: The New Page)
*This is an excerpt from a speech that stretches about 2 pages with few breaks.

Sir Myles: "No one can tell me his majesty knows of this—this folly. I won't believe it." (Chapter 4: Death in the Palace)

Governor Ali Mukhtab: "So. A cat's curiosity, as well as a cat's love of privacy. Is it permitted to ask why only one page travels in your group?" (Chapter 7: The Black City)

This continues with the adults who are not nobility, notably Coram (Alanna's manservant) and George Cooper (king of thieves). Both men are more prone to speeches than the younger characters, but they are set apart from other adults through their use of slang and their accents.

George Cooper: "So—it's the young sprout with the purple eyes," the man said pleasantly. "I was wonderin' if you'd fallen into a well." (Chapter 2: The New Page)

Accents are one of the hardest things to get right, and it's something that Pierce excels at. Alanna is her first novel, so the use of accents isn't as refined as it becomes in her later works, but even from the beginning of her career, her mastery of how to convey different forms of speech on the page is evident. Many authors rely on phonetic spellings to convey character accents, and this is part of Pierce's toolkit. But she relies more heavily on other tools.

Pierce's dialogue is mostly written in standard English, even when the character in question has a heavy accent. The phonetic spelling she does use adds variety and acts as a shorthand that places certain characters within the world, giving the readers an immediate clue to their background, upbringing, profession and education.

Captain Sklaw: "'Twasn't me, yer Grace," Sklaw growled..."'Twas the lad Trebond, and he did it all by himself." (Chapter 6: Womanhood)

The main reason Pierce's use of phonetic spellings is effective is because she doesn't overdo it. Phonetic spellings are sprinkled through a character's speech, giving the sense of the accent without overwhelming the text. Characters like Coram and George's thieves, who are working class, have dialogue with the heaviest use of phonetic spelling. George's dialogue, even though his accent is the same as his subjects, relies more on slang and vocabulary to bring it out. His dialogue is between the common folks and the nobility due to his status as the king of thieves.

Coram: "We're goin' back this instant, and I'm tannin' yer hide for ye when we get home! Where's that devils'-spawn brother of yours?" (Chapter 1: Twins)

Hostler Stefan: "Oh, aye, he fell. O' course, Master Ralon helped him fall, several times. Poor li'l tyke didn't have a chance." He chuckled. "But he got Master Malvon a good 'un in th' nuts t' start," (Chapter 3: Ralon)

This is the primary way that Pierce conveys accents: through vocabulary. Both George and Coram use more slang than the nobility, and the flavour of their slang is distinct to the kind of characters they are. Coram's slang signals his lower class status but also shows that he spends time with nobility. This gives his speech an element of formality that is absent from George's slang, which is more colourful and less tame. Contrasting this is the general vocabulary both men use. Coram's is rougher, closer to plain language, while George's is more formal and eloquent. This signals Coram's lack of formal education and highlights George's intelligence as well as hinting that he has more education than is expected from someone of his status.

Coram: "Keep an eye to yer saddlebags," he called back to Alanna. "There are some here was would steal their own mother's teeth!" (Chapter 1: Twins)

George Cooper: "I've no wish to buy your silence. This is a sale, right and straight. When I bought the mare, I couldn't let this one go. The dealer was a filthy old Bazhir. These two in his string were like emes in garbage." (Chapter 5: The Second Year)

Importantly, Pierce's use of accents and vocabulary is never used to signal a character's lack of intelligence. While the characters who speak with heavily accented dialogue are usually commoners who do not have formal education, Pierce never uses this as a shorthand for stupidity. Instead, her careful construction of how her characters speak enriches both the characterization and the world of Tortall. No one in real life speaks exactly the same as anyone else, and adhering to this in a fantasy is what makes the world come alive. Pierce understands this, which is what makes her stories so engaging.

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