I'm visiting my family in North Carolina this week, and was pleased to run across an article in a local paper that described the enduring value of regional dialects.
However, I don't love it when authors use too much dialect in fiction. I think the over-use of dialect in dialogue is a huge story drag.
I once belonged to a writing group where a writer insisted on loading down his eighteenth-century naval adventure story each week with enough historically "accurate" dialect to sink a clipper ship. And what's worse, he'd write phonetically accented dialect, so that it became taxing simply to wade through a few paragraphs. By the time his characters had been at sea for five minutes, I felt like I'd been reading for five hours.
But every time I suggested to him that there was too much dialect, he'd come back with, "But that's the way people really spoke."
And my thought-response to that was, so what? Reading it was hell.
With all due respect to Mark Twain, I think writers today need to convey dialect through techniques that don't involve making the reader slog through irritating, hard-to-decipher dialect. We must try to give the rhythm of natural and regional speech without making readers suffer through a surfeit of "sanging," "you'uns," and "Oh, Law's."
These tools include:
- Local phrases - The article I linked to earlier mentioned that mountain folk might refer to a child born out of wedlock as a "woods colt." When you sprinkle local phrases such as that into your dialogue, your readers will know exactly the type of speech your character is using.
- Slang - You can use slang to clarify a character's speech, but I'd use this tool sparingly. Slang can make your writing seem dated. For example, how many eras could utilize the slang phrase "booty call"?
- Grammar - a character's use of grammar communicates a wealth of information about his or her education, socioeconomic status, and other personal traits. But again, use that tool lightly so that ungrammatical speech doesn't become annoying.
Coming up Sunday, June 14, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry. And watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.