I recently did a presentation on writing realistic dialogue for my local writers group. I decided to go ahead and post it here in case people who had to miss the meeting wanted a chance to read it. Then I thought you guys might like it, too. And if you end up singing Ten Duel Commandments to yourself for the rest of the day, you’re welcome.
Well-written dialogue is an amazing multipurpose tool – it’s a heavy-lifter. It’s the Swiss Army knife in a writer’s toolbox. It can convey character, emotion, and motivation all in a few carefully chosen words. It can also drive the plot. Poorly written dialogue is also a tool – usually a sledgehammer beating against the reader’s head.
It’s no secret that acquiring editors frequently scan for dialogue in submissions. And when it doesn’t work, they often pass on a manuscript without reading further.
I’ll admit that when I was working as an acquisitions editor, I always made a point to see how the author handled dialogue. If it was rife with the dialogue sins we’re about to discuss, the author received a rejection letter. If the dialogue had potential, I’d read more of the story and possibly send a revise and resubmit letter. If the dialogue was solid and engaging, I’d often read the entire submission. The moral of this story is that good dialogue will get you a lot farther.
#9 Thou shalt not spell phonetically to indicate ethnicity, accent, or dialect.
Phonetic speech attempts to visually mimic an audible accent or dialect. And just so we’re all on the same page here, I’m using accent to refer to way characters pronounce words based on the country they’re from or their ethnic background. And I’m using dialect to refer to phrasing of language based on a character’s region or social group.
Writers have long struggled with how to show a character’s ethnicity, accent, or place of origin by writing in dialect. In the past, one of the common ways of indicating dialect was by writing dialogue phonetically.
Think about how people with southern accents and dialects are portrayed in media. There are two basic modes: genteel, southern ladies and gentlemen and backwoods, good ol’ boy hillbilly types. Now obviously, there are just as many types of people and levels of intelligence in the south as there are in any other location. But because of the slower speech patterns and drawl and various colloquialisms, the predominant stereotype is that people from the south are less intelligent than their northern counterparts. Phonetic spelling of dialogue in books only reinforces this misconception.
I know a woman who has a very heavy Texas accent. When she goes to conferences in other areas of the United States, she works hard to mask her accent and speech patterns because she noticed that fewer people treated her like an idiot if her accent was softer.
Now, back to the use of phonetic spelling. Using non-standard spelling is problematic for a number of reasons, the most mundane of which is that it makes it difficult to read. If the reader constantly needs to stop and sound out every other word of a character’s dialogue, it’s unlikely that person will finish your book or buy your next one.
But the most important issue when writing in a phonetically spelled dialect is that whether the author intends it or not, it comes across as racist and/or classist. Often judgement values are implied by the author and inferred by the reader about the character’s social standing and level of education. Using language in this way tends to reinforce existing negative racial and cultural stereotypes and whether you’re writing historical or contemporary stories, I would strongly, strongly urge you not to do it.
When you choose to write in standard English for one character and for another in a phonetically spelled dialect, the subtext is that the standard English speaker is normal and even superior and the non-standard English speaker is not. It doesn’t matter what your intent is, that’s the perception that’s lurking there.
There are ways to indicate accent and dialect without resorting to language mangling or stereotypes.
If your character has a recognizable accent, there’s nothing wrong with having another character in the story note it. Phrasing is another useful tool.
For example, we might say, “What are you talking about?” if we were confused by something someone said. Someone from Wales or England would be more likely to say, “What are you on about?”
The important thing about phrasing and colloquialisms is that they must be able to be understood within the context of the story. That doesn’t always happen. If you’re unsure, ask someone who’s unfamiliar with the location that your character is from. Ask that person (or people) if they understand the gist of what’s being said.
Another method, if your person isn’t a native English speaker, is to put the words in the order in which they’d be in their native tongue.
So, if I wanted my native German speaking character to say something that meant:
“I think we should go to the store and get a gift for the baby before we go to the hospital.”
but in the order the words would be in German, it would look something like:
“I think that we can go to the store, a gift for the baby to get to before we go to the hospital.”
The meaning is clear enough, and it definitely gives the flavor of a non-native English speaker.
However, you need to make sure that your meaning can be understood. I can give you a real life example of this not working out so well.
My great-grandparents on my mom’s side only spoke German in the home. They (very) grudgingly spoke some English to my grandma when she emigrated to the United States.
Fast forward to my husband and I moving in together. I was looking for a hammer to hang some pictures. I couldn’t find one, so I asked him where it was. But those weren’t exactly the words that came out of my mouth. In fact, my husband literally had no idea what I was asking. The phrasing I’d used was a very rural German to English Michigan colloquialism that made no sense to him whatsoever. So, you know, I repeated myself. This didn’t help.
He continued to stare at me like I’d grown three more heads and said, “You’re saying words and none of them make any sense. I mean I get that you want a hammer, but what the fuck, I thought you were an English major.”
I couldn’t figure out what his childhood trauma was until he wrote it down for me.
Do you know for a hammer?
Because I grew up hearing this “do you know for” in place of “do you know where” from my mom and extended family, it never occurred to me that those particular words in that specific order didn’t mean anything my husband could understand. It didn’t occur to me that in that order, it made no sense to most people.
If you’re wondering whether or not a reordered-in-English sentence makes sense within the context, give that passage to someone who’s unfamiliar with questionable ways of asking for a hammer, and ask them to tell you what they think it means.
Another technique to give the feel of a person’s dialect without trying to visually mimic their accent, is by replacing some standard American English words with words common in the character’s country of origin. If your character is a Brit, he lives in a flat not an apartment, and she takes a lift not an elevator. You can find tons of lists of words and common phrases online to help you out with this.
You can also use the occasional foreign language word phrase interspersed in a person’s dialogue. Do be careful when you’re choosing to include. More often than not, the phrase consistently given to Latinx characters is Dios Mio! That is a stereotype. In fact, I’ve never once heard any of the Latinx people I’ve known use that phase, though, I’m sure some do. Probably not nearly as often as we see it commonly used in fiction. *gives E.L. James the side-eye*
#10 Thou shalt not write dialogue for children and teens if you don’t have or interact with children and teens. (Not without assistance, anyway.)
Often in books, it’s clear from the dialogue that the authors don’t have children or even know any. Those characters end up reading more like caricatures. Caricatures that make you want to roll your eyes or maybe punch them. The caricatures. Not your eyes. That sentence was a bit ambiguous.
If you have a child or a teenage character in your story, please not only familiarize yourself with the speech patterns and language of this age group, but also their thought processes. Now, I’m not saying that you need to take a child development course in order to write a younger character, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a look at Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Wiki actually has a nicely condensed article that will give you the basics of each stage of development. Of course, your characters may vary from the ages and skills mentioned in the article, but it’s good to be aware of typical behavior and levels of development.
The same goes if you’re writing a child (or adult) who’s non-neurotypical. Let’s say your character is somewhere on the autism spectrum. If you don’t have personal experience with kids on the spectrum, please do some very thorough research. Don’t rely on popular culture or clickbait stories online for your information. The dialogue and communication pattern of a highly functioning autistic child will often be quite different from a child with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Much like the dialogue of a three year old will greatly differ from that of an eight year old. Not only are there several substages of development between the pre-operational and concrete operational developmental levels, there are also five years of experience with and exposure to language. Oh, and watching hours of the Disney channel to learn the speech patterns, habits, and interests of today’s kids is not particularly helpful. Not recommended.
Let’s say you don’t have kids or don’t have access to them—what do you do to make sure your characters’ dialogue reads naturally and authentically? I’m not about to suggest that you start staking out the local bus stop or playground to question small children or teenagers about their speech patterns and slang, but I am suggesting that you might want to consider asking a friend with children of a similar age to your character to take a look at your dialogue. After all, a lot of things have changed since we were kids.
Welp, that’s it for the Ten Dialogue Commandments. I hope you enjoy the blog series. If nothing else, you now know how not to ask for a hammer. And if you can think of any I’ve missed, please feel free to put them in the comments!