Dialect in dialogue: How much is too much?

We’re writers, and we all love a good character.

a Scotsman on an archYou know, a character who’s something of a “character.” And we all know that one of the clearest, simplest, and most effective ways to illuminate a tasty character is by using dialect in dialogue. Good use of dialect lets our readers “hear” the same character voice that we, as authors, hear inside our heads.

But how much is too much?

This topic sparked a heated discussion during a Critique meeting earlier this year. One of our most talented writers, Dorothy Abrams, showed us several pages from her novel-in-progress. Her setting was 18th-Century Scotland. Her key characters spoke in a nigh onto incomprehensible brogue and used unfamiliar words dredged from that time and place.

Some of us loved what Dorothy had done. Others among us stumbled through the dialogue and advised her to tone it down for better readability. Aye, therr was much wailin’ an’ gnashin’ o’ teeth, I tell yeh.

Did that last sentence bring your eyes to a screeching halt?

Yup, that’s the problem that arises when you try to instill authentic dialect into your dialogue. I’m not saying it can’t be done. Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre writers often draw their readers into alternative worlds partly by using invented dialogue conventions. In those cases, once you’re in, you’re in, and your brain does the necessary translating on the fly.

For mainstream fiction, though, most writers would agree on a reasonable compromise for including dialect.

Here are 5 techniques you can use to keep your characters’ distinctive voices readable:

1. Translate, using italics

Example:*

“Ah’d nee lak teh see ‘at, laddie,” the wary Scot ventured. I’d not like to see that.

This works kind of like Vicodin: It’s great in small doses, but over time the side effects outweigh its value. Your readers will learn to skim past the quoted dialogue and read the italicized translations instead; but this type of approach will inherently hinder your pace.

2. The reverse of #1: Add dialect in italics

Example:

When Bonatti said, “I don’t ever want to see you again, Krepkey,” it came out dough nevvah wanna seeyuh.

I like this method, but I may be in the minority among critics. When you use this technique, you can only do so sparingly, in key situations. To make that character’s voice stick in your reader’s mind, you have to do it early and choose your “translated” words or phrase carefully. But it works.

3. Use dialect only in certain key words or phrases

Example:

“I dint mean to offend you, Mr. Tartaglia, I swear.” I could barely breath, I was so scared.

He stared at me for a minute with coal-black eyes, and finally smiled. “Fuhgeddaboudit, kid.”

It’s easy to roll right through that first instance, “dint,” partly because the word is close enough to its correct spelling to effectively fool the eye.

The second one, familiar to anyone who watches The Sopranos, is indeed a stumbler — but’s it’s fun to say and brings a smile to the reader. That one word is enough to define everything else Tartaglia says without using any additional dialect. I like this method, and often see it used by top writers.

4. Use other-character observations for effect

Example:

“You may come in, Lieutenant, but I have only a minute to spare before I must leave for a meeting,” Meltzkamp said.

  He pronounced my title Lute-Nant, but otherwise the old Kraut’s English was flawless. I stepped inside.

I do like this approach, especially for first-person POV stories. Observations like this one help grow both characters, since the protagonist’s reflections say as much about him as they do about the speaker he’s listening to. Notice, too, the somewhat stilted phrasing used by Meltzkamp, despite his “flawless English.” All the words are spelled correctly, but the sentence still feels foreign.

5. Insert foreign words or phrases in italics, untranslated

Example:

The waiter approached us stiffly. “Bonjour, monsieur et madame, welcome to Chez Jacques.” We could barely see his eyes behind his uplifted nose. I couldn’t read more than a word or two on the linen menu.

Sometimes, this is your most effective approach. My 17-year-old son, fairly fluent in French, showed me how to use Google Translate to get both spelling and phrasing correct. (I was clueless.) It helps if the words or phrases you use are reasonably easy for your readers to recognize.

I read a novel earlier this year, in which the villain routinely muttered to himself in French. The author simply included these sentences intact and untranslated. Some I could reason-out, and others I had to ignore or look up. While the technique was effective for depth of character, I’m sure I tripped over some of the phrases.

In the final edit, only you as Author can decide what works best for your story.

Keep an open mind to feedback from your editor(s) and beta readers, but you’ll have to make the final call. This is one situation where the “read it aloud” editing advice could actually steer you wrong.

What did Dorothy decide for her Scottish novel? I’m not sure, since she moved on to a non-fiction project at her publisher’s request. She’s been so busy writing and revising that we haven’t seen her lately. I’ll just have to track her down and find out.

* All example dialogue was made up for this article.

»photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach

Do ye love the use of dialect in dialogue? Hate it? Do you use any of these 5 techniques for coloring your characters’ voices?

 

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Comments

  1. This is a wonderful article. Being a writer that actually enjoys creating natural dialect, I have used these methods automatically, without giving much thought to specific process. Because the muse speaks, the process that ends up being used is that which sounds best and works most smoothly–depending upon the overall style, characters and setting. The preacher in church would certainly not say ‘Fuhgeddaboudit’ as an example–it would stand out like a very sore thumb.
    Now, after reading this, Jim, — I will be paying a lot more attention to these choices… “:)

    • “I have used these methods automatically…” is such a great observation, Raymond!
      Writers like you, who have years of experience, have evolved a voice over time — over the course of writing tens of thousands of words.
      “…which sounds best…” says it perfectly. No one approach will be the right choice every time, even for the same character in one story. I would, however, love to hear a preacher tell his parishoners, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” — just once?

  2. As a reader, I enjoy dialect that helps me get a better picture of the character. But only to a point. And I think that’s your point, Jim! Just a few words of dialect thrown in here and there are enough to give me more information about the character without completely distracting me from the story.

    • You found the perfect word, Bobbi — “distracting.”
      It’s not always easy for us as writers to know where to draw that line, tho, is it? When we’re writing we’re so “into it” and can picture and hear everything in our heads. Not so, our readers.
      Thanks for stopping in!

  3. Welcome Jim to the blogger group and glad I found you. I agree with Bobbi that I enjoy a bit of dialect – but if it is overwhelming and overpowering it distracts me from the story itself. Great post.

    • Great to meet you, Jane. Thanks so much for stopping by and for your feedback. Now I need to go visit your house to find out what an epicurean is!

  4. Hey Jim,
    I couldn’t ever see myself writing fiction, but I enjoyed this post about the process and debates for writers who do. My fascination with the “Scootish” accent doesn’t hurt of course but, ya gotta love any post with the phrase, “Aye, therr was much wailin’ an’ gnashin’ o’ teeth, I tell yeh.”
    I dig the headline by the way. It roped me right in.

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to read, Joel. Feedback like yours is extremely helpful. Nice that my silly attempt at a Scottish accent got at least one laugh! I’ll make a point to stop by your site next. Thanks!

  5. I’ve always loved a bit of dialect in the stories that I read. It really brings the characters to life for me, sometimes, when I know the character has a different accent or what-not, I’ll read their parts in my head as if they were saying it, as close to the accent as I can manage – regardless of whether the author has written it that way.

    I love a little mystery or a puzzle, so I like trying to figure out what the words mean. I tend to prefer #5 in my reading. It makes me think and still pulls me into that character. I tend to dislike when the authors translate, UNLESS it’s by a first person character who is analyzing something someone else said. Translating just to translate for the readers annoys me.

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Very good points from you, Kim!
      I’m glad I’m not the only one who reads with voices in my head. Sometimes I try to “cast” the characters using real actors, just to clarify my mind-picture, too. hmm. :-)
      Gotta agree with your final comment: when the focal character interprets someone he’s interacting with, that works best for me.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, Kim!

  6. As a reader, I enjoy clarity and readability over all else. As a writer… perhaps I need to consider the importance of dialect. Thanks for the breakdown!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Really good to meet you, Amit!
      “Readability” is everything to me. I want to get “lost” in a book, not spend my time re-editing the manuscript in my head. And for me, writing dialogue in my own work is the hardest part. Some writers just seem to “hear” all of their characters, almost effortlessly.
      Thanks for taking the time to drop in, Amit.

  7. I really liked your 4th suggestion–‘Use other-character observations for effect’. The example you used gave me a taste of the dialect without overwhelming me.

    I like getting a sense of a foreign dialect as it can really spice up a story while adding a sense of authenticity, but it should be used more like salt and pepper and not served up as the main dish.

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Perfectly stated, Dave!
      I can learn something from you on the subject “how to be succinct”! “Salt and pepper” — exactly!
      Thank you much for stopping by!

  8. I remember struggling through Gone With The Wind at age 10 or 11, trying to make sense of all the dialect spoken by the slaves. It all became more clear once I saw the movie! Since then, like most of the commenters here, I enjoy just a sprinkling of dialect or accent – enough to give me a feel and to hear the character’s voice and accent in my head. Too much and they’ve lost me.

    As for foreign phrases, they work fine as long as they’re in italics and it’s only a few words or at most a sentence. Otherwise I get annoyed that I may be missing something.
    I have to say I have not yet attempted to use dialect in my writing, it does feel a bit daunting. So important to nail it accurately and to be consistent throughout the piece.
    Interesting to consider all this!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, Sarah,
      You make a good point about “being consistent throughout” — that’s easy to get wrong, for sure.
      By the way, I love your site name! (was afraid you were Spam, but only for a second -grin- )

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