Writing perils: dialect

As I noted yesterday in the discussion about writing in the first person POV, readers had a pretty good reaction to "Sister Ophelia", in large part because of the voice of the narrator. If you've decided that stories that use dialect are automatically crap, I'd ask you to go read that story, then come back here for this discussion.

I'll wait.

dum de dum...

OK, all done? Good.

First off, thanks to everyone for your kind comments about the voice of this character. Writing in dialect is tricky - nothing makes a story come alive like dialect done well, and nothing makes a story more intensely annoying than dialect done poorly. It's always with some trepidation that I do something like this. I didn't want the narrator to come off sounding like Pappy Yokum. Having someone end their aberrant verbs with an apostrophe, as in "the kids were tearin' all over" or "I cleaned up her sickbed and washed her linens for three days running, so don't tell me it was some angelic host come a'callin' out at our farm" can be really annoying if there's too much of it.

That there is walkin' a tightrope between authenticity and mockery, and there ain't too many writers as can pull it off without soundin' like they take their July vacations down at Lake Corn Pone.


Susan May James left a fantastic, detailed comment about the dialect usage in "Sister Ophelia". Then, in response to Susan, E.D. Lindquist related some of her experiences in writing dialect, including her conclusions that a) it's hard, and b) it's not her strong suit.

What makes dialect work? What makes it fail? The way that I write dialect is not to use strange punctuations, but choices of verbs and using unusual sequencing of words in the sentences. In other pieces, I've used other dialects, including a South Jersey gangsterVictorian England and blue collar loser. Each of these were a challenge, because I had to "hear" the dialect, and figure out a way to communicate it without laying it on so thickly that it became farce.

Do you write in dialect? Do you think it's necessary? Does it add to a piece or is it just a gimmicky distraction?

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. I use dialect from, specifically, Houston, Texas. I think the key is to be consistent, so that the reader has a good chance to learn new language patterns. For the sense of realism it adds, I think that many readers appreciate dialect. Also, region specific words (like only Houstonians call the frontage road of a hwy the FEEDER; we NEVER say frontage rd) as well as word order that's region specific are vital additions. I love the voice memo tool on my iPhone, so I can grab cool speech at random.

  2. I think the reason Sister Ophelia works is the dialect is somewhat understated ... it doesn't hit you over the head. Lay it on too thick and it just sounds cheesy. It doesn't take much to bring the reader to understand the character and their background. I haven't experimented much with dialect - i haven't had much need to thus far but we'll see ... :-)

  3. I use small amounts of dialect in White Pickups. There were times that I had to dial it back so it didn't get too thick. I think the idea is to help the reader hear that same voice you're hearing, without transcribing too much.

  4. I think there are 2 main ways to do dialect. The Mark Twain way, which does so in such perfect detail that you are thrust into it whether you like or not. And there's the way everyone else stumbles through. I think your method of doing so in an understated way is the best way to go. If you cannot reach Twain's pinnacle of dialect, then it is best not to try. I think it's like the Uncanny Valley in that the closer you get to perfecting the dialect without actually getting it perfect, the more likely it is to take the reader out of the story.

    Doing it in a more understated way let's the reader fill in the blank with their own ideas and prejudices of how they think the dialect ought to work. That keeps them in the story and doesn't pull them back out.

    I've tried, but always end up scrapping it. I end up being too inconsistent, and its hard enough giving character's their own voice, distinct from mine, without also throwing an accent in there, too.

  5. E.L.: That's a really good point. If you as the writer aren't familiar with the dialect, it's almost impossible to get it to sound right.

    P.J.: In writing "Sister Ophelia", I had to stop several times and rein myself back in, precisely to avoid the kind of cheesy caricature your talking about. It gave this guy a distinctive voice, but I wanted him to be sympathetic; laying it on thick would have interfered with it.

    FAR: Agreed - it takes practice to know how close to the edge you can go, and when you need to pull back.

    D. Paul: Maybe to modern ears, Twain is so completely into it that it reads as overdone. I've had conversations with people who have said they can't stand Twain precisely because of the dialects. It's more challenging to get into it, but it's like reading Shakespeare or pulp fiction from the 1930's. There's a patois that you need to tune your ear to. The Uncanny Valley is a good analogy. As fun as it is to lay on the dialect, it's a bit like laying on description of the scenery. If it's not necessary to the plot or the character, then it's better to leave it out and let the reader fill in the blanks from some key hints.

  6. I write Cajun because a lot of my stuff (especially the spin offs from Combat!) are set there, and because I love the culture. I find myself trying to balance between too much and not enough, and in fact, had a discussion about that in the comments for my story "Them".

    Doing it, and doing it to the best of your ability is critical to authenticity, as E.L. said. Mais oui! So t'ere, cher, t'at's my t'inkin' on t'e subject. :)

  7. I never ever use the "dropping of the g" or "droppin' of the g" :-D -- because it annoys me when I read it over and over and over again in a novel or short work, but, not only that - no one seems to be consistent - for twenty times they'll write "I'm runnin' off at my mouth!" and then the 21st time they'll write "I'm running off at my mouth!" ungh. Just a pet peeve of mine.

    Consistency is key!

    I use "dialect" but not overtly - my characters from WVA/NC have their own way of talking that is unique to them, but, it's not "dialect" in that dialecticy way :-D

  8. Janet: One of the things your comment reminds me of is that the usage has to resonate with the readers. As E.L. said up above, there are specific word usages that will either make or break the dialect. I'd never heard of the term FEEDER, for example. For readers unfamiliar with a cajun dialect, Janet how does that go over when you use what might be an unfamiliar term?

    Kathryn: Ha! Now you make me want to go back into "Sister Ophelia" to see if I was consistent! As it happens, Susan May James commented on this as well, the fact that I didn't drop the go in all "-ing" verbs. I recognized the potential for inconsistency, but I thought it would be overwhelming if it was all runnin' and gunnin', all the time.

  9. umm, dude! have you not read my blog. hole E tole mole E, the whole thang is purtanear back woodish.

    Okay, so I use y'all alot.

    And what is this E.L. is saying? Errr tryin to say. It is a feeder road. It feeds cars onto and off of the freeway. :-p

  10. I've used dialect before (most recently in a story I've sent to an all dialogue collection for my state writers association) and it is tricky.

    The only basis for the dialect I used in my story was every Harry Potter film (and all other British films) I'd ever seen.

    Still, I took a cautious road. I sent my story to two beta readers from England to see if the voices were authentic before I subbed the story.

    It is hard to write dialect. But the results are rewarding if it is done well. It lets the reader really get inside the head of the characters who are speaking. It helps to play what I call "the movie in my mind" when I read it and can hear the character speaking in his/her own dialect.

    But it is disastrous if you get it wrong, though.

  11. Just finished THE HELP by Katheryin Stockett. Best. Use. Of. Dialect. Ever.

    Excepting Mark Twain and Dickens. Peace...

  12. @Tony: It helps if you put it in some kind of context, I think, so that people have a chance to figure out what you mean. Something along the lines of:

    'I t'ink we got enough of t'ese damn mudbugs," Ti-Jean said, using the pole to bring the pirogue to a halt.

    "D'accord." Pierrot nodded, emptying the net of the crawdads he'd brought up.

    I think the reader might be able to guess that a 'mudbug' was another name for a crawdad. Or not. :)


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