“Yawsuhh, I’ze gwine gogitzome skrimps teat.” I would never write this.

If you wrote the line in the heading, you would catch a lot of crap, even if it were accurate to a certain region. I heard that line and wrote it in a notebook, but there it has rested for a decade. Writing in dialect is probably one of the hardest calls in the dialog department. Not that you can’t do it, because you can, but it won’t work over a distance. I give the reader a taste of what it sounds like, but switch to readable non-phonic after. Sometimes I just tell the reader what the words sounded like so they get it without them having to struggle with misspelled words or those that are unfamiliar to the readers’ eye. So, I say that, it sounds like, Baawstin for Bosten, or Mizippi for Mississippi to another character. I do it once for a character. Or I may have a character purposefully mispronounce the word. i.e. “Baawstin,” Carl said, mockingly. But long runs of dialect are a no-no for me. If you write thoughts, do characters who speak in dialect, think in dialect?) I suppose they would have to.

Dialect is hard. Accents are hard, unless they are your own. Deep Southern drawl is mine because that is who I am, when I relax. I grew up in it. I know it. I have an ear for it. I also do a passable Cajun because I’ve spent a lot of time in the Louisiana lowlands, the waterways and swamps. I like writing accents I know and enjoy. Cadence. Pacing of spoken words. You can not fool people who know an accent, so you have to do it right. Immerse yourself in a region and soak up the nuances of the spoken word in that place. You have to have an ear.

Nothing about writing is easy if you do a good job at it.

How do you deal with dialects and regional accents? What’s your favorite to write, to listen to?


11 thoughts on ““Yawsuhh, I’ze gwine gogitzome skrimps teat.” I would never write this.

  1. I find this a very confusing issue in writing. I understand why you wouldn’t want reams of dialect. But it feels equally weird to use dialect the first time then write in non-dialect the rest of the time. Even without dialect, dialogue is hard to write (at least to me) to make each character’s voice unique. Theoretically, it seems like it would be confusing to read a character with dialect and then no dialect.

    I guess I just haven’t practiced the technique enough yet.

  2. One of the writing books I read (I think it was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) has examples of how you can convey the cadence of a language just by your grammar. I thought it was brilliant.

    Sometimes dialect is well done. Just try to read the first few pages of Bob Son of Battle aloud and feel that Scottish brogue. But I don’t know it and can’t write it. Sadly I’m Californian, and talk in the extremely fast Californian slang. (“Probably” becomes “pry”, for instance. “I’ll pry go get a coke.”) Which only works if my characters are from the west coast. 🙂

  3. Writing dialect well is a gift. I agree too much can be a strain to read. Maybe a sampling of it, coupled with a great setting & effective world building is enough to place the reader there.

    In my current project, I have a street kid with a Hispanic name. I’m part Hispanic & grew up around the culture, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with full on street kid lingo. (My target audience probably wouldn’t either.) I can hear this guy talking in my head, so I go with that, trying to capture his cadence & certain words, but mostly his attitude. I don’t attempt phonetic spelling or any accent. He’s more generic & hybrid. I’ve also deliberately avoided describing him, but I think readers will “get” him.

    It’s been so much fun for me to create a cast of characters, mostly boys, who are so different in voice, education, & culture. Capturing the psychology of certain kids who’ve experienced real tragedy in their lives is a challenge too. Attitude goes a long way to making a character have the right “feel.”

    Great post, John–and timely for me.

  4. John, I suggest avoiding anything that will stop the reader. If they have to pause to figure out how a word is to be pronounced, and it happens often, they might just skip ahead, or put the book down in favor of another. The way I suggest dealing with accents and dialects is to present a sample then return to normal speech, with a few reminders along the way of the dialect. Bottom line in my opinion is to never do anything to stop the reader from reading.

  5. I suck at writing dialect/regional accents. George Pelecanos is amazing at at it. His new novel, WHAT IT WAS, is loaded with it, and is but one of many elements that makes the book one of the best so far this year.

  6. I had to read that headline three times to figure out what it meant. That’s the main reason not to present dialect phonetically–it slams the reader to a halt. I wrote about my allergy to dialect a while back in Just say no to dialect, Y’all

    I like to suggest the rhythm and sound of dialect without torturing the reader. We can accomplish that with sentence structure and a sprinkling of words that convey a sense of dialect.

  7. Awesome post and a tough one. The only thing I have to add is a trick I got at a great blog that I have since lost track of. When you character is foreign and speaking in english, never have them use a contraction.

    It adds a bit of formal stilted tone to their dialogue that makes it sound a little off, as in . . . wait for it . . . they have an accent. It’s also how you learn to speak english. Patois comes later.

  8. Kathryn – I had missed the first post, it was awesome.

    And John’s comment about what the character thinks and what he says are two different things.

    An aside, I busted a troll in a forum I moderate. We had this new member, an obnoxious redneck who was, well, trolling, and disrupting the forum. He also had long “conversations” with the person I suspected was the troll.

    Then it dawned on me. I don’t care how thick your spoken accent is, you don’t write with an accent. The posts were full of phonetic dialect. Not misspellings like you would expect, but carefully constructed dialect.

    BAM! I called him out and suddenly our redneck got a new job and would be offline while he moved and it “shor’ had bin a pleasure meetin’ y’all.”

Comments are closed.