Thursday, May 15, 2014

How to Write a Novel : Dialog and Dialects

We are still talking about the use of dialogue in a novel. As with everything else in the novel that you’re writing, you get to make all the choices. It doesn't matter what other people think. If you want a character to drop the F-bomb every three sentences like a Martin Scorsese film, it's your call. If you want everyone to talk like they're on the set of Mr. Rogers, you can do that too. Your characters should all speak differently. Obviously some would be educated, some illiterate, some Penn State grads. 

This week let's talk about something a little different: Writing in dialects. Whether it is someone trying to sound like they're from the American South or giving a character a foreign accent, these choices can define a character almost more than anything else. But they can also distract the reader from the story.

Let's check in with some of my blog mates to get their take on how they handle dialect or accents:

From Jackie:

Jackie (on left)
I have had a fair bit of experience with dialect and accents with my series, and have approached it in different ways. In the period of time in which my books are set, the accent could change from village to village, so having that sense in the books has been important with regard to establishing a sense of place. In the Maisie Dobbs series one of the characters in particular has a Cockney accent (and that is not necessarily a “London” accent, as there is also rhyming slang to deal with). I used spelling and punctuation to emphasize the accent in the first three books, then afterwards I toned it down a bit - I realized that a little dab was enough to get the point across, plus committed series readers had a sense of the character/s by that time, and new readers who came in at book 4 or 5 or whatever often went back to the beginning and started over with the first book in the series. In my new book THE CARE AND MANAGEMENT OF LIES (a standalone non series, non-mystery) to be published in July, I have employed a couple of different methods, including description - this is an example:

“Look you bloody fool. Look and remember. She’s right beautiful.”  He pronounced the word “boodiful” in his rounded Sussex brogue.

I have also described a way of speaking in the same way that I might paint a picture of a place, using metaphor - for example, I used that method in AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE, for example, when I wanted to convey a sense of the speech pattern of Romany gypsies.

From Patty:

Use dialects sparingly in your writing. I’m saying this mostly as a reader who gets irritated when the story
comes to a crashing halt while I puzzle out what the characters are saying. It may be authentic. It may be the way people talk in that neck of the woods, but by now you should have learned from James O. Born that the way people talk in reality is not the way dialogue should be written. Real speech is often boring with a lot of pauses and ahs and other time-wasters. Boring writing is not what you want for your dear readers. It will make them grumpy and may cause them to throw your book across the room. After that, they will likely not buy the next one.

Unless your target audience readily understands a specific regional dialect, i.e., a Southern drawl, capture instead the cadence and flow of how a character speaks. If your character’s first language is not English, perhaps leave out words like “the” and mix up verb tenses. Also be careful of using too many foreign phrases unless you can find a tricky way to translate them. Otherwise, your readers will feel left out and possibly angry. So, how do you do this? Listen to people talking at work, on the bus, in a restaurant, at a baseball game, and everywhere else. Bonne chance et amusez-vous! "Good luck and have fun to you, too!"

From me:

In Jim's Mind
Having grown up in Florida when it was still considered part of the South and gone to graduate school in Mississippi, I am particularly sensitive to poor attempts to emulate a southern accent. In truth, there is no one southern accent. Each region has its own nuances that are readily identifiable to other Southerners. I would rarely mistake someone from Tennessee with someone from North Florida. Yet most writers tend to think of a southern accent as being the same everywhere.

From another perspective, I have a difficult time telling the different New York accents apart. One way I avoid offending New Yorkers is I don't try to use a dialect when they speak in my novels.

A valuable aspect of using a dialect or foreign accent is to play on the stereotypes people hold about others. For instance, a cheap and easy way to make a character seem smug is to have them use several French phrases when they are speaking or put on a fake accent. Can you tell me Madonna doesn't sound ridiculous when she tries to sound like a British person. Frankly, the fact that she lives in England now should be a grounds for them to break off diplomatic relations with the US.

Good luck with this one.

Our quote this week is:

I know Patty used it last week, but I had it ready to go for weeks.  My attorney will be contacting her.

Next week:  Who knows?


  1. from Jacqueline: Jim, I am loving this series of essay on writing - so full of golden nuggets I can use, or that inspire me. Today's quote is especially helpful - I am currently in the fog and feeling my way along (in terms of my current project), and it's a reminder not to just grind to a halt and curl up on the side of the road - the mists will clear soon!

  2. I really enjoyed your lunch time keynote at RMFW a few years ago. I thought you really spoke to our issues.


  3. I've just retained Jake Lassiter. Have your lawyer call my lawyer.

    Love your new headshot!

  4. James O. Born5/15/2014 2:46 PM

    Thanks for the comments. I like putting my thoughts in print but it tough around release time.

  5. Speaking as a Brit... I didn't realise Madonna tried to sound British! She do tawk funny though.

  6. I enjoyed reading about different perspectives on dialog and dialects. Wonder if it is similar or different from different names for the same thing. For example, someone in a region would say "I went to the market". Another person in another region would say "I went to the grocery store".