The Dangers of Dialect

Photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) on Flickr
Oftentimes, when working with dialogue, writers work with characters who have a peculiar manner of speaking. Whether it’s a weird turn of phrase, a thick accent or unusual slang, it’s not at all uncommon to come across characters with unique speech. 

Unique dialogue, when done well, is great because it makes it easy to identify a character’s voice, and it can also say a lot about their character. However, when done incorrectly, this great character marker can become difficult and painful to read.

The number one problem I’ve come across with unique dialogue is writers going overboard with dialect.

The thing is, dialect is a tricky thing to get right. If you do too little, it’s like you haven’t done anything at all, and the few sections where it’s present feels out of place. Do too much, however, and a character’s speech can go from quirky to nearly impossible to read.

The key is to find a happy medium, which of course isn’t entirely easy, especially at first. Good news is there are three questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not you’ve gone over the dialect deep end.

  1. Do you have to slow down to read it? This is a huge red flag to me—if I have to slow down to read and process what a character is saying (or worse, read it several times to try to figure out what’s being said), then more likely than not, the dialect’s been overdone. Remember—you never want your writing to draw attention to itself—and forcing your readers to slow down to translate your character’s speech will definitely draw attention away from the story and onto the words. 

  2. Can you read it aloud without tripping over the words? If your answer is “no” or “yes, with practice” then you’ve failed this test. Go back and smooth out your dialogue to make it easier to read.  

  3. Were your CPs and beta readers able to read it without getting frustrated or confused? Self-explanatory. If your CPs and betas are fine with it and didn’t have an issue, then you might be in the clear. But if you’re getting comments on confusing speech, it’s a pretty good sign you should break out the red pen. 

Finally, for a good example of nice, balanced dialect, I give you Hagrid:
“I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed. 'Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with.” —Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling) 
Have you ever written dialect or come across dialect that was difficult to read? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Writer @Ava_Jae on dialect: “You never want your writing to draw attention to itself.” More tips here. (Click to tweet)  
Do you have accented characters in your MS? Writer @Ava_Jae shares 3 signs you may want to rework their speech. (Click to tweet


Robin Red said...

Ha! "Yer a wizard, Harry."

Ava Jae said...

I like what you said about word choice being more effective than pronunciation—I agree! I think it tends to sound much more natural and draw less attention to itself, but still work wonderfully as a way to show a lot about a character and make the dialogue memorable.

As for the MS you read, I can definitely see how that'd make things rather difficult to read. It's tough, because I love language stuff too, but if it's not balanced, it can be a major turn off to readers. *sigh*

Ava Jae said...

Yay Hagrid!

Stephen said...

It may be a quirk of mine as an English teacher who has worked with many non-native English speakers, but each of my novels has a principle character whose first language is not English. Representing that accented English faithfully is part of the "fun" as an author/linguist. I have to strive to maintain a balance between keeping it realistic and keeping it readable.

RoweMatthew said...

Oh of course. When you're a young writer it's easy to think you are being clever by writing phonetic words for dialogue but it's just a pain to read. I got some advice once that really helped. A writer can give a better impression of dialogue through careful word choice

RoweMatthew said...

The example I was given was the Deep South accent of America. You can listen to how they speak on video and emulate the flow of the words rather than the phonetics

Robin Red said...

Did you ever have trouble reading Viktor Krum's dialogue in Goblet of Fire?

Braden Russell said...

Oi compleetely ergree wif everyfin' yew said.
I critiqued a story a year or two ago in which the villain was some kind of chimeric snake lady with a chronic hissing problem. The writer indicated this by an overload of the letter S, which got a little old after jusssst a few paragraphssss. I suggested that she mention in her description of the character that she hissed when she spoke, rather than wearing out the S key on her keyboard. I think that dialect is sometimes better when it's imagined by the reader, and not spelled out for them.

Ava Jae said...

It's been a while since I've read the Harry Potter series...but I don't think I did?

Ava Jae said...

I totally understand your interest—it can definitely be fun! But balance is definitely key here. If you overdo it, there are unfortunately repercussions.

Ava Jae said...

Yes! I completely agree. Showing accents through word choice is fantastic, because it doesn't slow down readability, but it still shows a character's unique speech and gives a sense for their accent.

Ava Jae said...

That's a great point about dialect sometimes working better when it's imagined by the reader. I think that may be part of the reason I tend to prefer dialect that's shown through word choice rather than literally spelling it out.

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