Monday, June 8, 2009

Just say no to dialect, y'all

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.
But maybe it's just me. In my writing group, I seemed to be the only reader who was highly allergic to dialect. What about you? Do you mind reading dialect in books? As a writer, what are some of the do's and don'ts that you employ to portray a sense of dialect without turning off a reader?

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.


  1. So I guess yinz guys ain't comin' ta tahn for da Stiller's game n'at. We was gonna tailgate and have killbossy and Arn City n'at.

    Seriously, I'm with you Kathryn. Can you imagine reading all that Pittsburghese in a book? People really do talk that way around here, but I'd never use all that in a book. I can see throwing in a "yinz" once in awhile, but the trick is knowing how much is too much.

  2. Lol, Joyce, have to know what a killbossy is. A hot dog? The fact that I kept losing the battle for hearts and minds in one writing group makes me wonder how many writers try to overuse dialect. It's a real story killer!

  3. Kathryn, I feel your pain. My advice when using dialects is: Fugitaboutit!

    I don’t think anything should be allowed to get in the way of the story. If something stops the eye or causes the reader to have to work at reading, it should be eliminated. And you’re reaction of “so what?” is the same one I would have experienced. In a similar writing group that I attended years ago, we had a guy who wrote historical fiction. His books were written in the authentic language of the day, and it limited his audience to a handful at best. Consequently he never sold a manuscript despite the fact that the basic stories were good. But the constant use of dialect made reading them too much work.

    I have the same feelings for using foreign language. I think it’s wonderful that the author can speak another language and likes to prove it in the writing. But frankly, there’s nothing wrong with simply saying, In Spanish, he said, . . .

    I’m with you that dialect should be used sparingly if at all. The story always comes first.

  4. I have a friend whose favorite character is a dwarf. When he writes for this character, he sparingly uses little hints to suggest that the dwarf has an accent. He absolutely despises writing a character's accent because he says it takes away from being able to read the story with enjoyment. And I most certainly agree with him. Which is why if I create a character with an accent I'll mention it the first time they speak and then leave it up to the reader to remember that's how they talk.

  5. I don't mind it in moderation, but when someone becomes Twain-esque, it's a problem. If you want to see southern speech done well, Harper Lee did a very good job. Folks don't always talk that way round NC, but to be sure the good people of Alabama's proud.


  6. Good subject, Kathryn. Overuse is not only a barrier for the reader, it's a barrier to selling your novel in the first place.

    Vocabulary (word knowledge) and syntax (word order) are also valuable tools for the suggestion of background. E.g., Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon.

  7. I think authors can go too far the other direction as well. Obviously it takes talent to not make every voice in a novel sound the same. I remember tossing a book written by a very famous thriller writer aside because the Chinese deckhands on an ocean freighter spoke in perfect English.

    Personally I don't have a problem with some local dialect in books. Steven King would have been screwed if his publisher tossed some of his work aside because of dialect.

    You just have to know how much is too much and conversely, IMHO, how much is not enough.

  8. A killbossy is a Polish sausage, right? The kielbasa that is a staple in places where Eastern Europeans settled.

    Thanks for the advice on this one. It is tedious to read that sort of dialogue, although there needs to be some way to show background, etc.

  9. Kathryn - I totally agree. I have both historical and regional issues for my dialogue and I try to avoid weighing dialogue down with too much stilted Edwardian English or incomprehensible Lancashire dialect. I truly think a balance can be reached with judicious use of the tools you describe. I try to give a flavor for the time period and location. As I always warn people - remember Lady Chatterley's Lover - or how to ruin sex with dialect!

  10. Anonymous got it right! A kielbasa is a Polish sausage.

  11. My WIP is set in Western Pennsylvania. I'm dropping in regional references to reinforce the setting, and bits af grammar and dialect wo set the voice, but not to the point of getting phonetic about it.

    A couple of examples. The bar with its menu on a chalkboard behind the bar announcing "kolbassi--not kielbassa--sandwiches." (In my home town it is never referred to as anything but kolbassi.)

    A character refers to shopping at Giant Eagle. I then have the narrator note: She pronounced it "Jian Iggle." Then I leave it alone. Once the reader has an example or two in their heads, they'll get the point.

  12. Regionalization and dialects should be used as others have said sparingly. The key is to get the reader to understand that an individual is from a particular place and speaks like others from that place. But if someone has never been to that place or listened to someone from there, they will put the regional spelling together in a way that makes sense to their own mind.

    If you've got a Scot, a London Eastender, and a Welshman meeting at a bar with a Boston-Irish, a New Yorker, an Alabaman and a Sakatchewan Canadian you'll have so much crazy phonetic writing going from one sentence to the next that you'd lose your reader in seconds. And a local bit of wisdom may also make no sense to some outsider. Any wise saying related to snakes, racoons, opposums, or centipedes will be met with a look of confused squintishness by many of my Alaskan Homies, since we don't have any of those things up here and many folks have never seen any of them if they don't have a TV.

    That reminds me, not only is dialect in dialogue potentially dangerous, local terminology, even place names can be sticky.

    As an Alaskan I find myself constantly amused hearing tourists try to pronounce place names and native words up here.

    Kuparik (its not 'cup-a-rick'),Anaktuvik,Dhegeyaytnu,Tok,
    Wasilla, Nuiqsut

    Or people group names;
    Dena'ina, Inupiaq, Tlingit (hint on that last one the "T" is not a "T" and the 'g' is very hard.)

    Then do those native words with a Sarah Palin accent, which is the most common among rural/semi-rural folks who've been here more than one generation.

    So, dialectic dialog has its place but caution must be exercised cautiously to get it right.

  13. Great comments, all! Wilfred, you bring up the excellent point that while we don't want to overdo dialect, at the same time we also need to differentiate between the characters' voices. The how-to on that could be its own blog post!

    Thanks for confirming killbossy. I have to confess that the first thing that came to my mind was Kill Bossy, possibly as a solution to a controlling dining companion (grin).

  14. Not only is writing in dialect a distraction for the reader, but in my opinion, it's being untrue to the character who's doing the speaking. Taking Joyce's example, the speaker who says "comin' ta tahn for da Stiller's game" THINKS he's saying, "coming to town for the Steeler's game." Since I'm a shifting-third POV writer, I think that the use of the dialect would misrepresent the character's actual thoughts.

    I feel differently, however, about y'uns (I don't think I'd do yinz)and y'all. I think those are real words--like ain't--and I quote those directly.

    And Kathryn, I'll take it step further: The use of foreign language in American literature. I'll often read something like:

    "'Adonde vas?' she asked. Where are you going."

    I think that's fine when we first meet a character, or when we have to orient the reader to the fact that the characters are speaking a different language; but after that it get annoying.

    Jeffery Deaver tells a great story about choices he made while writing GARDEN OF BEASTS, which is set in pre-war Germany. He establishes early on that all of the characters are speaking German all of the time. That being the case, he chose not to include ANY German words in his text. What would be the point? Okay, here's where it gets cool: Throughout the book, then, when people refer to Hitler, they refer to him as Leader, which apparently is the translation of "Furher" (I butchered that spelling, didn't I?).


  15. I like your advice. Dialect makes the brain read letters instead of words. And letters aren't so good at telling stories.

  16. I write what's been called "redneck noir," so dialect is a big issue with me.

    I'm with the folks who say throw a little in at the beginning to let the reader know how the character talks, then back off of it and let the reader fill in the voice.