Rendering Dialects and Accents in Dialogue

by James Scott Bell

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about dialogue is how to render dialect and accents without bogging down the text with phonetic indicators and apostrophes all over the place, as in:

“Say, Mose, ah reckon there’s a-gonna be a shootin’ or a hangin’ over ’ta the saloon.”

“Ah reckon yer right ’bout that.”

“Ah reckon the whole town’s ’bout ’ta ’splode.”

“Reckon so.”

“Yep, this shore is a day of reckonin’.”

Or a conversation between an Alabama farmer and a New York writer:

“Thar’s a far out yonder.”

“A what?”

“A far.”

“Oh, you mean fire.”

“Ah said far, didn’t ah?”

Too much of this is going to wear a reader out. That’s why heavy dialects and accents in dialogue are out of favor with editors and readers. (Note: A dialect is based on word choices particular to a region; an accent is the “sound” of the speaker when saying the words.)

But what if you do want the character to have a heavy accent? Be clever about it. Give the reader an indication of the speech pattern the first time the character speaks, then use a few sprinkles of it every now and then as a reminder.

For instance, you can do a dialect-heavy first line and then pull it back in subsequent lines. Liz Curtis Higgs does this in Thorn in My Heart, a novel set in 18th century Scotland. A local shepherd greets a lost horseman with:

“D’ye ken whaur ye’re goin’, lad?”

You have to look that over a couple of times, but that’s what Higgs wants you to do. The heavy brogue is now implanted in our minds. After that she keeps the odd spellings to a minimum.

You can also use straight narrative to tell us what the accent sounds like. This was Stephen King’s choice in Pet Sematary. At the beginning of the novel, Louis Creed and his family have just moved to a little town in Maine. There they meet a neighbor, an older gentleman named Jud Crandall, a native of the region. Here is part of the introductory conversation:

Crandall nodded. “Course you are,” he said, which came out: Coss you awe.He glanced at Rachel. “Why don’t you take your little boy and your daughter over to the house for a minute, Missus Creed?”

Instead of making the pronunciation part of the dialogue itself, King tells us directly what it sounded like. The dialogue then proceeds without phonetic spellings. But the sound is now in our heads. We can “hear” Crandall in his unique fashion.

A few paragraphs later, King drops in a reminder:

“Not at all,” he said. “Lookin forward to having young ‘uns around again.” Except the sound of this, as exotic to their Midwestern ears as a foreign language, was yowwuns.

It’s interesting to note that for the word Lookin King does not use an apostrophe. This is true throughout the novel when gs are dropped. I like that. It doesn’t bother me a bit, and actually is pleasing to the eye.

I brought this up with a group of writers recently, indicating that if I ever wrote a Western, I’d like to give that a try. But one of the astute younger scribes reminded me that there are typo hunters out there now who will downgrade their reviews over such things.

Good point. So if I ever write Day of Reckoning I reckon I’ll be puttin’ in them little marks.

Thus, for dialects and accents:

  • Keep odd spellings to a minimum.
  • Do some of rendering up front to plant the sound, then minimally after that as a reminder.
  • Use well-chosen regionalisms. For example, the Scottish shepherd would say Aye instead of Yes, and Lass instead of Woman.

If ya feel a bit o’ sharin’ comin’ over ya, then be doin’ it in the comments, if ya please.



32 thoughts on “Rendering Dialects and Accents in Dialogue

  1. Perhaps it varies by author and just how heavy their use of dialect or accent is. I’ve read plenty of westerns that use both and it is not in the least difficult or tiring to read.

    I have read, on a few other occasions, books where I am not as invested in the character & such mannerisms were harder to take. But when I’m not invested in the character, lots of things about the story can be an irritant.

    I do like the idea of the POV character explaining what the word(s) sounded like to them. It puts you that much closer to the POV character because you get to “see” how they process sensory inputs. If I’m not mistaken, I think this technique is used very successfully with Mike Romeo. 😎

  2. Two rules I picked up for southern accents come from a Jimmy Buffett song and a comedy routine I heard long ago:
    • “You don’t pronounce your R’s and G’s,
    When you’re speakin Southenese;”
    • Drop the “L” between a vowel and a consonant – “Can I help you find a light bulb?” becomes “Can I hep you find a light bub?”
    Usin the King “drop-in” with these in mind saves a good bit of wrasslin with spell-check and auto-fill…

    • Drop the “L” between a vowel and a consonant – “Can I help you find a light bulb?” becomes “Can I hep you find a light bub?”

      Again, with the warning that this can look like a typo to many readers … so it would be advisable to indicate it’s purposeful.

    • The South is a BIG place, and accents of locals can vary within a short geographical distance, let alone a whole state, or region. It also varies by education and race among other factors. People from the Midwest and North have inundated us in the last twenty years which has diluted our accent.

      Words are regional, as well. A novel I read some time back had a local character from the NC mountains call another one “a cracker.” That’s a term used in the mountains of Georgia, not North Carolina. A wince moment for me.

      So, the moral of this story is avoid accents and dialogue of regions you don’t know spit about, or do your research and find someone who does speak the area’s dialect. If not, you will be considered, at best, an idiot or, at worst, an arrogant regional bigot.

  3. I try to keep things to a minimum for accents. “She heard a hint of Texas in his voice” does it for me, and then maybe a couple of words he uses, like “darlin'” to remind reader where he’s from.
    For my Aussie character, I’d send my American to a friend in Australia, and have him translate for common phrases, but when I used them, there was usually another character around to ask him what he meant by “bucket of piss” or “it’ll be apples.”
    Maybe this is a good place to tell, not show. 🙂

    • Good point, Terry. A bit o’ tellin’ can sub for too much showin’, which is the point of my post. Get the sound in the reader’s head in the most efficient way possible. Sometimes a good tell is the way.

  4. This is a huge issue for international thriller writers. Thanks for the suggestions.

    Ten years ago, my very first editor said, “I think English is your second language. You really shouldn’t write anything else until you take more classes.” She also wrote, “Since when do Africans speak French?” She was young. I wanted to say since the Belgians invaded the Congo, duh, but since I want my audience to include young readers, I changed my approach instead.

    Now I, too, tell how language sounds: “He loves listening to her voice, to the playful cadence of excellent English filtered through a charming German accent.” I also sprinkle in a ja or a nein, a oui or a non to remind the reader about the sound. My frustrated characters or villains drop obscenities in their native languages: sch—bleep or mer—bleep.

    I look forward to other tips from writers today.

  5. I like the advice to explain when the dialect is first used, then use the odd wording/spelling sparingly for easy reading. In one of my series, I have a Chinese character with a strong accent. In the first book, I went a little crazy to cement his accent in the reader’s mind. In subsequent books, I concentrated on his tone, things he might say that reflect his culture, and the way he delivers his dialogue, rather than phonetically spell out his dialect.

    As someone with a Boston accent (or so I’ve been told), “Lookin'” without the apostrophe would drive me crazy! Although, I have no problem with “gunna”, “gonna” and that sort of thing.

  6. I often have American Indian characters in my WIPs. As long as I use some sort of idiom in their speech occasionally–nyah, for example, means something like, “I’m just kidding you,” or BS–and the white guys don’t sound like English department Ph.D.s from Hahvahd Yahd, everything should be okay.

  7. Recently revisited Mr. Twain’s Tom Sawyer classic and I couldn’t hack more than a few pages. Just too much of what you point out, Jim. Trying to sound all those apostrophes in muh haid took me outen th’ story, see. But it’s worked well enough for 140 years. I’ve read somewhere that it was poorly received in its day for that and other reasons. Maybe once is enough.

    • I believe it was Huckleberry Finn that caused all the fuss. (See my post HERE...)

      Readers were more patient back then. You could take up lots of space with description (since we didn’t have movies, TV, or YouTube). Same with dialect.

      Things move a lot faster now. Anything that slows the experience of story needs to be excised.

  8. Great post. A lot of useful information here.

    I finished ROMEO’S FIGHT last night. Great story. Lot’s of twists and turns. Loved the ending. I look forward to the next one.

  9. Nice post, Jim. Spot on, I think. Anything that gets between the reader and the story is a mistake. The narrative reminders work just fine. Fact is, a native Bostonian thinks he’s saying, “park the car in Harvard Yard.” If he’s your POV character, it’s silly to insert the dialect.

    On the other hand, “I’m fixin’ to tan your hide” would sound stupid as “I’m fixing to tan your hide.” Carrying the example further, I think that changing “your” to “yore” would be unnecessary.

    Where I live, “y’all” is often singular and “all y’all” is always plural. I don’t think either of those need explanation at all, and a reader will insert the Southern dialect of their choice. A Pittsburgh “yins”, however, might need explanation, maybe not.

    One common annoyance practiced by many authors inserts foreign phrases in italics, only to explain what was said in the next sentence. For that italicized line, my mind leaves the story. Why not just write the phrase in English and add, “he said in French”?

    My book, FINAL TARGET, is set in Mexico. I’ve established in previous books and again in that one that Jonathan Grave speaks fluent Spanish, but with a Colombian accent. I don’t think there’s a single Spanish phrase in the book, with the exception, perhaps of universally-understood words like gracias.

    • That’s an interesting issue, John. I’ve seen it done both ways, the italicized phrase w/explanation and the “he said in French.” The first way doesn’t bother me if it’s done judiciously. If there’s going to be more of it, I’d consider a “tell” portion, e.g., “He went on in Spanish, and I picked up a few phrases. I took it he was warning me not to go into the cafe, and to keep my fat nose out of his business.”

      • Not sure if I hit ‘send’ before (and if I did, it was too soon–hate working on the tablet keyboard).In Linda Castillo’s Amish mystery series, she writes out the Pennsylvania Dutch in italics, then translates the phrases (never more than a sentence or two). It doesn’t bother me; I think it helps show how her protagonist is part of both worlds, the English and the Amish.

  10. This is a great post, Jim. I love your suggestions on setting up the dialects, but minimizing it so the reader isn’t mentally exhausted trying to decipher the dialogue.

    I recently finished a novel set in New Orleans. I focused the dialogue more on unique words as a reminder to the reader of where they are. My main character’s dialogue is peppered with regional words I infused into her lines.

    The issue I wanted to ADD to your post is how to distinguish between characters if your cast are all from the same region. An author should have an idea how to make each voice different for the reader. I gave my female lead a unique vocabulary & sassy humor to set her apart from her male counterpart who is more educated and from a wealthier family. That way I could focus on their class differences while both of them use the regional wording.

    If there is an ensemble of characters, it’s important to make each voice distinct, as you’ve posted before. Creating voices that readers can “hear in their heads” is a blast to think through and develop. I love a challenge. Thanks for the fun post.

  11. Good post on an important topic for writers, I think. If you have doubts about this, I’d second those here who say that less is more. You can suggest it, or say “he sounded like…” but to keep up an actual dialect or accent for 300 pages is really tough on even the most invested reader. I read a novel a while back where a character had a stutter. And yes, it was rendered in every line of dialog that way. It was wearisome. All you have to do is tell a reader once or twice and they will file it away in their brains. You just have to trust readers to get it.

    My own latest encounter with this was when Louis had to spend a lot of time in the U.P of Michigan where the “Yooper” accent is pretty distinctive. I tossed in a couple idioms and one or two “eh?” but let it go with this line:

    Louis had always liked the Yooper accent, which fell somewhere between the hard nasal sounds of Detroit and the soft lilt of Canada.

    Eh? 🙂

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  15. Thanks for a great post. My current WIP features Americans getting used to different wording in New Zealand. Much of this is British English. As an American living in NZ myself, my brain often supplies two words as I think. So I’m having to gauge how often my characters voice or think this in the beginning when many words are different. For example: “I was in the lounge … I mean the living room … when I heard the phone ring.” “Don’t forget your flashlight … I mean your torch … when you go out at night.” “I left my shoes in the toilet … bathroom.” In some cases the reader might not know what I’m referring to if I use Kiwi English, but it wouldn’t sound right for Kiwis (New Zealanders) to use American English.

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