Dialogue: Accents and Dialects

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?” or “I’ll put a couple of shrimp on the barbie, mate.”

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.”

Later in the story is this snippet.

[Mary says]“Why did you lie to me? Everyone’s lied about my grandparents my whole life, and I’m sick of it.”

Crunchy edged away from her, and for the first time his eyes didn’t sparkle when he looked at her. “I didn’t lie. I don’t know no James Agnes Stuart. You never asked me about Jimmy Boots.”

“I didn’t lie either.” Kid Rags sounded as unfriendly as when Mary first met him. “I just didn’t tell you the whole truth. We didn’t come from nice suburban neighborhoods where things are relatively safe. For our own protection, we had to learn not to talk about ourselves or anyone else.”

Some writers still insist on writing accents phonetically, and in this new world of publishing where everyone is making up their own rules, you can do it to. Just be aware that it is not ideal and will cost you readers because of the difficulty of deciphering your particular code.

Writing Is the Great “As If”

There are more opportunities for writers to get published today than ever before. Independent presses are proliferating, which gives authors many new places to send submissions (that’s what I did — chose a small independent publisher). Writers can post their work on a blog for people to read online. And of course, there is the self-publishing option. Huge numbers of writers are not even bothering to query agents or to submit their manuscripts to publishers. They opt for self-publishing as their first choice rather than the last as was once the case. Some writers have no time to query, no time to learn the most effective way of presenting a proposal. Some see no reason to share their royalties with a publisher. Others simply want to bypass publishers’ standards. I’m sure there are as many reasons for self-publishing today as there are self-publishers, but my concern are those who want to bypass publisher’s standards. (Which, admittedly, seem to be non-existent these days.)

It does sound nice — doesn’t it? — to present your novel the way you want it done. It’s your prerogative, of course, and it is your novel. But is it? What about your potential readers? Isn’t it their novel, too? Too many people who self-publish think that freedom from a publisher’s standards makes them also free from a reader’s standards. But if no one can read your writing, if readers are pulled up short by misspellings, poor writing, poor storytelling, then what’s the point?

I’ve met some self-published authors who are proud of their inability to create a coherent sentence, as if it’s more artistic that way. Artistic? I suppose. But if I have to read a sentence two or three times to make sense of it, I don’t care how artistic it is. It’s a foolish waste of my time, and perhaps even a foolish waste of the writer’s. Reading a few articles about how to write, doing an extra re-write, taking care with proofreading might turn that unreadable tract into something people will want to read and even cherish. (I am by no means suggesting that all self-published writers need to be more careful. There are some fine writers who are self-publishing.)

A friend recently told me how proud she was of her ability to write in “southern dialect.” I cringed. Page after page of dialogue that you have to mentally transcribe into something resembling readable prose makes a reader toss a book aside. Perhaps, before radio and television, phonetically spelled dialects were important, because who, besides those who had been to the American south, knew what a southern accent was? Today, everyone (or almost everyone — I can’t vouch for those living in the far reaches of the planet who have no access to modern media) knows what a southern accent sounds like.

Writing is the great “as if.” You don’t need to painstakingly write in a southern accent, using phonetic spellings and a confetti of apostrophes.. The key is to make your readers feel as if they are reading such an accent. Some suggestions:

  • You can simply say, “Delia spoke in a soft southern drawl.” Perhaps that is a bit clichéd, but it does get the point across. Afterward, you can write in normal English (or whatever language you write in) whenever Delia speaks.
  • You can do one snippet of dialogue as dialect, then say “that’s what it sounded like when Delia spoke.” Readers will remember that’s how she talks, and will be grateful for your simple spelling thereafter.
  • You can phrase your dialogue as if it were dialect, but leave off the funny spellings. “Much obliged for the lift, ma’am. My dad-blamed son drove my car a far piece down the road, and he plumb ruined it. I reckon I’ll be thumbing it a spell.” Sounds southern (of a sort) and it’s still readable.

Description is another case of “as if.” You don’t need long descriptive passages that offer nothing to the story. All you need are a couple of key details that make it seem as if you’re describing the whole. If you talk about brown stains on the ceiling or dust motes dancing in the sunlight shining through the bare spots of the maroon velvet drapes, readers will get a good idea of what that the room looks like. And if you mention the brand-new 35″ television looming large in that dreary old room, your readers will get a good idea of who your characters are.

Less isn’t always more when it comes to writing, of course, and “as if” isn’t always the answer. And you certainly don’t have to write with potential readers in mind — it’s hard enough to write a novel without that additional pressure. But once the book is written, it would be a good idea to act as if people are going to love it, and then give them something to love. Which means, rewrite it so that readers will want to read it and not throw it against the wall in frustration.

By self-publishing, you might be able to bypass publishers’ standards, but you can never bypass readers’ standards.

He Mumbled, Groaned, Hissed, Spat, Purred, Whispered

As part of my Daughter Am I Blog Tour festivities, I am exchanging blogs with Aaron Lazar. I am blogging at Murder by 4, and he is blogging here. Lucky for me!  

Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his websites at www.legardemysteries.com and www.mooremysteries.com and watch for his upcoming releases, HEALEY’S CAVE (2010), FIRESONG: AN UNHOLY GRAE (2010), and ONE POTATO, BLUE POTATO (2011).  Aaron talks about dialogue tags: 

When I first started writing over a decade ago, I exulted in every new dialog tag I could think up. I preened over “he croaked” and purred over “she grumbled.” Finding new and inventive ways to say “he said” became my quest.

My early works were peppered with gloats, murmurs, and barks. I even started a most coveted (only by me) list. 

How many words can you think of to say “he said” or “she said?” Here are some, in no particular order:

Mumbled
Murmured
Expostulated
Grunted
Groaned
Whispered
Purred
Spat
Huffed
Croaked
Barked
Choked
Queried
Cackled
Harrumphed
Stuttered
Muttered
Moaned
Hissed
Grumbled
Whined
Sang
Twittered
Tittered
Griped
Yelped
Cried
Stammered
Shrieked
Crooned
Wheedled
Retorted
Pressured
Cajoled

How many more can you think of? There are probably hundreds.

Okay, now that you’ve wracked your brain for tantalizing tags, let me tell you one very important lesson.

DON’T * EVER * USE * THEM

What? Such brilliance? Such innovative thought? 

Yeah. Sorry. Forget it. Never use anything but “said,” “asked,” or an occasional “whisper” or “mumble.” 

Once in a great while, if you feel you really need it, slip in a “spat” or “croaked.” But I’m here to tell you that dialog tags, for the most part, should be invisible. “Said,” is invisible. “Asked,” is invisible. “Barked” stops the flow of the dialog. Anything that makes your story stutter needs to be eliminated, including these juicy but totally distracting tags. 

Got that part? 

Now that I’ve encouraged you to use “said,” I’m going to retract it. 

Forgive me, but that’s just the way it is. If you can avoid a tag altogether–through the clever use of action “beats”– then more power to you. 

Here’s an example of changing a passage from lush useless tags, to he said/she said tags, to using beats instead of tags: 

Case A:

          I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
          “Want me to take over?” Tony wheedled.
          “Why? Am I making you nervous?” I retorted, gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white.
          “Of course not, sweetums. You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break,” he crooned.
          We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
         “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire,” Tony groaned.

Case B

          I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
          “Want me to take over?” Tony said, leaning on the dashboard.
          “Why? Am I making you nervous?” I said with a frown.
          All smiles, he said, “Of course not, sweetums. You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break.”
          We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
          “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire,” Tony said in a panic. 

Case C

          I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
          Tony braced himself on the dash. “Want me to take over?”
          My knuckles turned white. “Why? Am I making you nervous?”
          “Of course not, sweetums.” He forced an innocent smile. “You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break.”
          We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
          Tony’s frozen smile barely hid his panic. “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire.”

***

These examples aren’t beautifully written or perfectly rendered. But they should give you the gist of what I’m trying to illustrate today. 

Add your own examples below, if you’d like. Let’s see some Case A, B, and C’s in the comments section!

copyright Aaron Lazar 2009

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Lisping Dialogue

I used to read books about writing — dozens of them.  Several mentioned that mispelled words and apostrophes are no longer in style to show speech defects or accents — such dialogue is difficult to read.  To denote dialect, one needs to show speech patterns from the specific area, such as “It’s not far, just down the road a piece.” Tells you a bit about the character, and it’s easy to read. Another suggestion was to use the misspellings and apostrophe’s to set the character’s accent in the reader’s mind, then switch to normal spellings.  I heeded this particular bit of advice in my upcoming novel, Daughter Am I. To get the full meaning of the excerpt, you need to know that the Scourge and Butcher Boy once worked for the Outfit, aka the Mob. 

“Who ith it, my love?” A rotund little old man wearing plaid bermuda shorts and a pink polo shirt appeared at the door beside the woman.

“Hello, Wallace,” Happy said.

Mary bit back a giggle. This was the Scourge? This gnome of a man with twinkling eyes and a lisp?

Wallace peered through the screen at Happy. “Do I know you?”

“Don’t you remember? We used to work for the same outfit.”

The woman’s face lit up. “Oh, how nice. Won’t you come in?”

She made a move to open the door, but Wallace put out a hand to stop her.

“That won’t be necessary. These folks were just leaving.”

“Hey!” Happy protested. “What’s the big deal? All we want is some information about Butcher Boy.”

“The supermarket in town has a nice butcher,” the old woman said, “but you can’t really call him a boy. He has to be at least forty.”

Wallace patted the woman’s arm. “Let me handle this, sweetie.” He opened the door, slipped through, and closed it behind him. Motioning for Mary and her gang to follow, he headed for the road.

“This your bus?” he asked.

A couple of editors mentioned that I was inconsistent, that I should have carried the lisp throughout the scene.  It was only two pages, but still, that’s a lot of th’s.

“That won’t be nethethary. Thethe fokth were jutht leaving.”

“…Thweetie.”

 “Thith your buth?”

So, when you read Daughter Am I (you are going to read when it’s released, right?) and notice the inconsistency, just remember how kind I was being to your eyes.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook