This Business of Writing

The Secret to Dialogue vs. Dialect

In The Craft of Writing on November 3, 2009 at 9:43 am

By C. Patrick Schulze

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Aspiring authors struggle with many issues and one of the most onerous is dialect. How does a writer present the correct vernacular in his story and still meet contemporary readers’ expectations? One sees the challenge when considering dialects through time, from around the world, within nations and even within regions.

Remember, I’m not talking about languages among peoples, but the way the same language is spoken by various individuals. As I’m from the United States, I’ll use my own home as an example and think of four people all saying the same statement in the vernacular of their unique location within the country.

First, let’s consider a construction worker from New York City inviting someone to fight.

“Yo! Ya wanna piece o’me? I’ll give ya a piece of dis right between the eyes, asshole.”

Next, listen to a shipyard worker from Newport News, Virginia asking the same question.

“Ya want I should kick yer ass, dickweed?”

Now consider how a Midwesterner might ask the same thing.

“Why, I outta whip yer butt. Think you might enjoy that?”

And finally, consider a college kid, fresh from surfing the California coast, readying his fists.

“Mello, Dude. Take a toke and chill.” (They don’t fight, but you get the point.)

In addition to the words themselves, infuse each of those statements with tone, inflection, physical gestures, and so on, and you have quite the cacophony within a single nation. Also, notice all the misspellings, colloquialisms, and punctuation. It all makes for a difficult read to those not accustomed to these speech patterns. The challenge for writers is to present these varied dialects into a readable, enjoyable style for the modern reader.

There is a secret I learned from the wonderful and successful author, Susann Cokal, when she sat on a panel and I was in the audience. Her genre is historical fiction within the medieval era and if she were to ask the same question as the American counterparts above, she might write something to this effect; “Forsooth, faire sir, for must I smite thee?” This might be how a knight of Olde England might challenge another, but if she wrote in this fashion today, it would be difficult for modern readers to appreciate her work.

Her advice was to look past the words, past the intonations, past all those oppressive commas and contractions. Look instead to the cadence, the music, within the vernacular and mimic that. Listen for how the words flow within the dialect and use contemporary wording within the flow.

Imagine a man speaking in a Southern drawl as bellies up to a bar in Houston, Texas in the late nineteenth century. Do not think of his words. Imagine instead his conversation as a wordless series of actions. Can you picture his actions, his facial expressions, his mannerisms? Using mostly modern terminology, write what you see in lieu of his words. If you do so effectively, the reader will appreciate the cowboy’s dialogue.

Imagine a Tutu tribesman in the eighteenth century preparing for battle. Can you see him swinging his spear overhead while dancing with his fellow warriors before the fire? Can you hear the high-pitched vocalization of the fighter? Can you imagine his fierce countenance as the flames cast shifting shadows across it? Visualize not what he says, but rather what he feels and then wrap your dialogue around those feelings.

You might continue with a limited number of colloquiums or abbreviations for authenticity, but keep those to a minimum.

My writing centers on the time during the American Civil War, a time when human bondage was prevalent in the USA and it was illegal to educate a black. Let’s listen to what I envision as a typical slave speaking to his master.

“Yeah, sah. I’s done puttin’ suppah on da plate fo’ ya an’ ya’ chillin.”

In this sentence there are fourteen words, ten of which are misspelled, plus five apostrophes. It’s readable, but will probably cause the reader to slow their pacing and read it a second or even third time.

Now I’ll try to write the same sentence while matching the dialect but making it palatable for the reader.

“Yes, sah. I’s putting supper on a plate for you and yah children.”

Though I retained a couple idioms to enhance the authenticity, it now has only one less word, but seven fewer misspellings and just one apostrophe. If you read both sentences with the mannerism you might expect a slave to exhibit, you’ll see the dialect is left intact yet the readability is enhanced.

Yes, it takes practice. It takes a lot of practice. But as with any craft, work at it and the technique will soon become a natural part of the dialogue you write.

I’ll write more on dialogue later in the week, kind readers. In the mean time, may all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”


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