[This is a continuation of a previous post: Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 1)]
Dialect and regional accents are especially tricky to write. It used to be that writers tried to show dialect and accent through the laborious use of phonetic spellings and a blizzard of apostrophes. Today, though, we readers don’t like having to decipher the author’s personal code. Nor do we writers need to take the time to create the code. It’s better to use colloquialisms and broken language to show regional differences. For example, “I done died and gone to heaven.” Not an apostrophe or phonetic spelling in sight, though you know immediately the speaker is not a high-toned college professor from Boston.
If your character has a foreign accent, you don’t have to bludgeon a reader with it. All that is necessary to portray an accent is to say the character speaks with an accent. If you wish, you can use phrasing to remind the reader of the accent, such as, “We will go to the store. No?”
This snippet from Daughter Am I shows Crunchy’s difficulty with English:
“Mary’s trying to find out about her grandparents,” Kid Rags said. “His name was James Angus Stuart.”
Crunchy shook his head. “Don’t know no James Agnes Stuart.”
“What about Regina DeBrizzi Stuart?” Mary asked.
“Don’t know her neither.”
Dialogue is an artificial construct. Dialogue does not mimic conversation but instead gives readers the impression of realistic conversation.
Books on how to write dialogue often suggest listening to people talk to learn how to write dialogue. Seems like good advice, but have you ever truly listened? “We . . . um . . . we, like . . . you know . . . we stammer and like we repeat ourselves and um . . . you know.”
Even when we speak coherently, we don’t converse. We lecture. We tell long, boring, convoluted stories. We interrupt others and talk over them. We use clichés. We tell jokes that take forever to get to the punch line. None of which helps us write dialogue. If characters in books talked the way we talk in real life, who would bother reading? We want our characters to sound like us, just not talk like us. We also want their conversations to be witty, to the point, and conflicted.
In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it—it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Our characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have us and our late night epiphanies on their side. We can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.
And get it right we must. Good dialogue advances a story and shows character interacting with other characters. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements.
The following is another excerpt from Daughter Am I showing the use of dialogue.
* * *
Mary noticed, for the first time, her father’s receding hairline, the deep crinkles at the corners of his brown eyes. Soon he would be as old as Kid Rags, Teach, and Crunchy.
Tears stung her eyes at the thought of her father living alone in a dingy hovel, and she vowed she would not let that happen.
Realizing the silence was stretching out awkwardly, she opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a palm to forestall her.
“I don’t want to know what you’re doing,” he said. “Whatever it is, I know it’s something you feel you have to do. I thought you should be aware you’re upsetting your mother.”
“I don’t mean to.”
He heaved himself out of the chair. “That’s all I came to say.”
“I’m glad you stopped by,” she said. “I planned on calling you later anyway to tell you I’m going to be away for a few days.”
He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish, but I suppose you know your own mind.”
You are so wrong. I don’t know anything.
He walked to the door, paused with his hand on the knob for a second, then turned to face her.
“I love you,” he said softly.
She swallowed. “Oh, Dad. I love you too.”
He opened the door. “Be careful, okay, honey? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.
“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.