Writing dialect

I recently picked up Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. In it they discuss the writing of dialect, and that in contemporary fiction it shouldn’t be done. (Fabulous read by the way)

I dunno about that input. While I am not interested in reproducing Mark Twain, is it anathema to use something such as 'spect for for expect or gotcha for got you or even dunno for don’t know

I’d love some input on that one.


Yeah, writing in dialect is way out of fashion, mostly because when it’s done, it’s mostly done horribly. I think probably one or two words (like 'spect) would be all right, but to reproducing a dialect entirely phonetically is an exercise in frustration for both reader and writer.

One of the problems is that a popular way of indicating dialect is to drop the “g” on an “ing” word: Goin’ or Bringin’. The problem being, that lots of Americans (at least) don’t pronounce the “g” and no one says THEY speak with a particular dialect.

An even better way to show the particular rhythm is in the words themselves. Terry Prachett does this wonderfully – when reading “The Wee Free Men” to our kids, my husband did a pretty good Scottish accent, just based on the words. And Stephen King has lots of characters who clearly speak in a particular rhythm, without using too many altered spellings.

I like the writing of dialect, despite what ‘experts’ (who are those people, anyway?) say. If a character has a really funny way of talking, that makes the character unique, but if you write his speech just like everyone else’s he loses that quality - and putting in a sentence like ‘He had a really funny way of talking’ in front of his first bit of dialog just doesn’t cut it for me.

Of course, it can be overdone. If you do it so heavily that no one can understand what’s being said, that’s a problem.

If anyone has ever read the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, they’re a good example of how writing dialog can make characters much richer. I love that stuff.

Diane, your examples of droppin’ the ‘g’ were makin’ me cringe! It was painful just in your post! I don’t think I could ever make myself do that 'cepting and exceptional circumstance.

My son’s love the Redwall books, I have only very limited exposure to them I suppose I should borrow my eldest’s and read them.

One of the reasons for my question is that I’m reading my way through the Honor Harrington books by David Weber for a second time. He describes the way people speak, and it’s up to me to make sense of that and then “hear” it in my head as I read. Generally I don’t have a problem with it, but there have been a couple of times where I cannot get a handle on what he’s describing, and that frustrates me no end as I know I’m missing out on something!

Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, was a massive bestseller in the UK ten years ago and is still popular. It is written entirely in a working-class Scottish dialect. It is brilliant. It takes a few pages to get the rhythm and the sense (in the same way that it takes about twenty minutes of watching a Shakespeare play before you understand what the ruddy hell anyone is on about), but it simply could not have been written any other way without becoming a much lesser book. As Marshall McLuhan (sp?) said, “The medium is the message.” Zadie Smith - a very respected writer at the ment (don’t start me off, though :slight_smile: ) - uses a lot of colloquialisms, such as 'spose for suppose and suchlike, and they make perfect sense and bring her dialogue to life.

So, personally I rather like a bit of dialect, with the same caveat that others have added - provided it fits. I guess the test is the same as with anything else in writing: is it necessary? If the writing is worse without the dialect or loses its impact, then you just have to keep it. If you could get rid of the dialect and it makes no difference, then the dialect was serving no purpose anyway. Y’know, to state the bleedin’ obvious. :slight_smile:


For me, the classic example is Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker, which was written, not simply in dialect, but in a totally made-up dialect which, as you read and decoded it, became an anthropological trip through the preceding centuries. (RW is set many centuries hence.)

It took a few pages to get used to the dialect, but then it became quite easy to follow – so easy that the sudden and very necessary passage of modern English near the end was literally a physical jolt when I reached it.

And of course, there’s A Clockwork Orange. And a good deal of Huckleberry Finn, which incorporated a variety of dialects, all close together yet all distinct. And Ursula Le Guin, who developed a sort of patois for worker ants.

When it’s necessary and well-done, it’s good. When it’s not, it’s not.

Which bon mot could be applied to any number of writerly gimmicks.