The Minefield of using Dialect in Dialogue

The use of dialect to convey accents or regional argot in fiction is one of those issues that seem to polarize writers and readers both. Many of the so-called experts, preaching from behind their pulpits, will slam the gavel at the mere mention of such parlor tricks in prose, and yet, the more I read the more I realize that the books and authors I most admire are the ones who aren’t afraid to splash their pages with apostrophes and hyphens, and ask their readers to do a little more work.

So how does an aspiring author approach such a minefield without losing a proverbial leg? The ready answer would seem to be very carefully, with delicacy, and perhaps a soupçon of skill, or not at all.enhanced-buzz-13112-1377009856-34

The late great Elmore Leanard, in his oft-quoted advice for writers, states in his point #7:

USE REGIONAL DIALECT, PATOIS, SPARINGLY.   Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

I don’t disagree with Leonard, not completely, anyway. There does seem to be an avalanche effect with the technique, where by shortening just one “ing” word to “in'” necessarily means all the others that character speaks also have to be truncated to remain consistent. Across an entire novel? You can very quickly build to an apostrophe apocalypse, and your editor may well douse your manuscript in gasoline and self-immolate.

And then there are the regional sensitivities to consider – when you employ dialect for hillbillies, or Scots, or non-native speaking accents, there will be readers who may be insulted, or feel the implied bastardization of their manner of speaking is derogatory somehow, whether the author intends it that way or not. By writing dialect the author is allowing the reader to draw conclusions about the character before they are even fully introduced (not always a bad thing – characters written with dialect that defy those preconceived notions can be particularly effective).

Yet, regardless of alcloud-atlas-bookl these dangers, there are readers (myself included) who relish the added effort of parsing out a phonetically spelled colloquialism, if it is done well and adds the right flavor. The caveat being: if it is done well. 

One effective example of the technique that comes to mind is in Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Consider the following passage, the opening paragraph of a section set on an island in the distant future after a catastrophic nuclear fallout, where the language has morphed and evolved over centuries of isolation:

 


Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me… so gimme some mutton an’ I’ll tell you ’bout our first meetin’. A fat joocesome slice, nay, none o’ your burnt wafery off’rin’s…


In only a few lines the inventive and oddly familiar language sets the tone for the coming story, and almost becomes, in and of itself, a character. Written without dialect the piece would fall flat, hemmed in by the limits of proper prose. Of course, we don’t all possess Mitchell’s remarkable talent for sounding out the irregularities of speech. So how should we lesser beings approach the technique? With fear? Should we cower from it simply because it is more difficult, both to write and to read? Or because it is fraught with danger? That depends.

For every reader who enjoys the labor there as many or more who find the technique jarring and amateurish, serving only to break the carefully woven spell of the narrative. These readers don’t want to work; they want the story to work for them. And they are perfectly within their readerly rights to demand what they want from their fiction. There’s an awful lot of it out there, and if they don’t like yours they will buy someone else’s. Fair enough. Add to that the fact that even those readers who do appreciate reading dialect will also enjoy a story without it, and we see fairly quickly that it is safer to avoid it altogether; that you may alienate potential readers simply because you couldn’t resist that cute and curly apostrophe.

So, there is one answer. As a beginning author, with exactly zero fans, there is a valid argument to be made for not pissing anyone off before they become one. No one would blame you; hell, no one would need ever know you were a closet lingo-lover, a patois-pervert, an idiot-for-idioms. Your secret would be safe. 

There’s that word again: Safe.

Some of us don’t like safe. It makes us squirm in our seats and fidget; bark profanities. There’s nothing remotely safe about wanting to spend a life writing in the first place, is there? And yet here we are.

I say, if you’re drawn to the technique, if you enjoy reading it and want to practice yourself (that soupçon won’t come easily!), then why the hell not? If you want to dabble in some dialect, go right ahead. Screw the soap-box preachers and effete academics, and follow your gut. Dare to slang it up, if that’s what you like. Confect the hell out of that page with some rogue punctuation, and let the naysayers thumb their noses and huff and puff until they choke on their blasted rules.

It’s only by experimenting that we see what works, what is too much. It’s okay to make a mess of a story as long as you learn from it. So go find your apostrophe epiphany! If it sucks, so be it. Put the “g’s” back in and carry on.

Language is meant to be played with, molded and made to do our bidding, not kept in a glass case and admired, unaltered through the eons.

Write for you, and chances are someone out there will enjoy what you’ve written. You will, at the very least. And me. I’ll probably dig it too.

 

Thoughts? Any other great examples of dialect in the books you have read? Any you’ve come across that you hate? Please share!


Challenge: write a couple lines of dialect, any dialect, and post it below – dare to share!


 

 

 

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21 comments

  1. One method that I have used is to describe the patois in the introduction of the character, without altering the dialogue too much. For example:

    “Here’s where we’re going. You planning on staying long?” the coachman asked, his words slurring where together where his “r’s” should be and his “g’s” dropping at random. I sighed inwardly. Must these backwoods folk murder the language so?

    Ok, so that was a bit clumsy, but you probably get the point. 😉

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    1. Great point – I’ve seen this done to very good effect in several books, but I’ve also been tripped up by it just as some people are with written dialect. It seems just as much work to me to digest the “directions” and then apply it across the character’s speech (often having to read the speech twice, to see where the words might be altered) as it would have been to just read the dialect. It seems almost a half-measure, as if the author is playing it “safe” but really wants the reader to hear the character in a certain way…

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      1. So really, what it comes down to in the end, is the skill of the person writing it. Patois can be used either liberally or sparingly or descriptively, to great effect…so long as the person writing it knows what they are doing and why.

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      2. I suppose so – but how do we know if we know what we’re doing? ha! Practice, I guess. I certainly don’t mind either approach, or no dialect at all, and have tried writing in each style, just to feel out for myself where I am comfortable. A lot of times for me the piece of writing will tell me what it needs, and I just go with it and try not to worry what people will think

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  2. Great posting. I’ve read “Wuthering Heights” many times, but not once have I attempted to read the pages of Joseph speaking in a Yorkshire accent.

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    1. Good example! It’s been many years since I read it, but I remember puzzling over those pages. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh is another one that’s notoriously difficult, due to the slang and expressions that an average reader won’t understand.

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  3. I had other reasons than dialect for using as many hyphens as I did in my first novel, but I only left off the Gs when a character was drunken. I also did not try to reproduce an Irish accent (there are too many, anyhow), but relied on other aspects of Hiberno-English to convey an ethnic feel to dialogue. I get out of patience quickly with a written “brogue you could cut with a butter knife;” in fact, if I find it in a novel set in Scotland, it’s usually a cover-closer. Too many writers feel compelled to pull out all the stops on the Scots, and I don’t like feeling as if a character was talking with his mouth full, and spit haggis all over the page.

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  4. When I started reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett and realized she’d written in the “African American Vernacular” I thought I was going to hate it. But she did an amazing job and I couldn’t put it down.

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  5. I think it can get tiresome if the whole thing is done in out and out dialect, especially if it’s one the reader isn’t familiar with. Loved your story, but did find myself skipping places (the ending though, how gorgeously yuck is that!) Also some authors do find themselves being accused of class distinction, with the ‘lower orders’ being given accents and the upper lot, not. (Jilly Cooper, for example, and Robert Louis Stevenson, (but he’s my hero, so you can bleedin’ well lay orf him, orl right|)?

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    1. Never read Banks, but I’ll check him out. I read a Lovecraft story just this morning that had some great dialect in it – “The Dunwich Horror”

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  6. This was a great read, and I couldn´t agree more with you. I liked that term “phonetically spelled colloquialism”. And yep, safe is not what I seem to be build of, not sure where this writing is going to take me or if it´s going to take me anyplace at all. But can´t stop writing, guess it´s an addiction, or just like breathing.

    Reassuring post, at least for me. I dabble in dialect,nutty dialect, but as you say the key is doing it well, but gain well, some people may think is good and others may think is not. Although you do have to have a basic knowledge I guess. Great read.

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  7. yes, i agree, if done well… i loved Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” where it is written in Scots dialect. i struggled to read it a bit at first, but after a while i wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. i think we should write how we want to write, who we are, ultimately, because we will be found out soon enough if we pretend to be (to write) who (what) we are not. 🙂 i think (and this is just me) that if we start writing for someone else (audience/fans/readers) we may lose ourselves, our style, in the process. and in the end we may not know who or what is real anymore, where do we begin and our writing end? i think “true fans” will enjoy what we write no matter how we write it, because behind the words and lines and whatevers they will still hear our voice.

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