DIALOGUE PART 5
Moron More on Dialogue
Guest Post on Dialects in Dialogue
by Indie Author, Robert Bevan
“Why, yoo gitton outta’here, yung feller. Go’on, now! Yir no better then a five-legged horny toad inna butt-lickin’ contest!”
What’s wrong with the quote above? If you said it’s insanely stupid, congratulations! You’re right!
Also, it’s a good example of some really bad dialogue.
If you were the sort of person who might be inclined to write something like that, you might have been thinking something along the lines of “I’m being true to this character’s voice. That’s how he’d talk.”
But a person reading that would probably think something more along the lines of “What the fuck?”
Here are some things to consider when writing dialects:
1. Consider not doing it. Is it really necessary? Will it add what you want it to add to your story? Can you maybe add that element some other way? Perhaps with word choice?
The problem is that your job as a writer is to make the reader forget that they’re at home on the sofa, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or are still on their first year of a life sentence for first degree murder… or whatever. They are supposed to be in the world of your story, right there beside your protagonist, caught up in whatever danger or struggles he or she is going through.
Guess what happens when the reader has to stop and try to figure out what that jumbled mess of misspelled words and haphazardly placed apostrophes is supposed to be saying. Snap! “Damn. I’m back in my cell. I really hope Ice Pick will take the night off from raping me. My butt hurts.” You’ve failed.
2. Okay, fine. You’re convinced that one of your characters absolutely needs to speak with a different dialect. Consider a sprinkle rather than a dump. It’s like applying a touch of cologne, rather than smashing the bottle over your head and rubbing yourself down with the shit.
“Why, you get on outta’ here, young feller. Go on, now! You’re no better than a five-legged horny toad in a butt-lickin’ contest!”
Yeah, it’s still stupid, but at least it’s comprehensible, and the voice still comes through loud and clear.
It’s hard to write a heavy dialect well while keeping the reader from having to stop and figure it out. One author I’ve read who manages to make it work is Christopher Brookmyre, in his novel A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil. All the characters are Scots. And just like real Scots, you have no idea what they’re on about until you take a little time to sort it out in your head. But once it clicks, it becomes smooth sailing. So yeah, that’s a book I’d recommend for anyone who wants to take a close look at dialects written well, or for anyone who just wants to read a well-told story. I really enjoyed it.
3. Whatever you do, be consistent. If you’re going to have a character say “yer” at one point, make sure he doesn’t say “your” at any other point. If he drops the ‘g’ when he’s talkin’, make sure he also drops it when he’s walkin’.
4. One exception to the above suggestions is if you want your main character to also not understand what the dialect character is saying. Hell, if it’s meant to be misunderstood, lay it on thick. Does that work? Let’s see…
“Why, yoo gitton outta’here, yung feller. Go’on, now! Yer no better then a five-legged horny toad inna butt-lickin’ contest!”
“I’m sorry. Could you please take the cock out of your mouth and say that again?”
5. Word choice. Different sorts of people will use different words to describe the same thing. A carbonated beverage, for instance, might be called “pop” in the northern United States. A person from the southwest would say “soda”. If they just call it a “Coke," the odds are good that the speaker is from the deep south. If the person speaking fondly remembers the Coolidge administration, they might even call it a “tonic.”
But it’s not just regional. Word choice can also tell you something about what kind of person a character is, no matter where they are from. If a character refers to a child as a “pupil," you can bet that person is a teacher with a yardstick shoved up his or her ass. A cartoonishly generic old person might call the kid a “whipper-snapper” (probably best not to use “whipper-snapper”). If the character refers to the child as a “precious angel” or “spoiled little shit," the speaker is probably one of the kid’s parents. The word “minor” would most likely be spoken by a police detective or a pedophile.
If your choice of words can show me the difference between a burnt-out cop in Chicago still five long years away from retirement and a southern housewife who is desperately refusing to believe that her best years haven’t yet passed her by, then you’re doing your job as a writer.
Robert Bevan is an American author and university English teacher living in South Korea. He is a husband and father of two. When he isn't busy writing, teaching, fathering, or husbanding (a small window of time on Friday nights), he still plays third edition Dungeons and Dragons.
His debut novel, "Critical Failures", attempts to bring a little something different to the comic fantasy genre. It is available on all e-book platforms, as is his growing list of short stories.
This wraps up our Dialogue Module. I'll be on WIPBlog vacation for the next three weeks!
Happy Writing and Revising,
J (Twitter: @JoanWIP)
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