In this post, Writers Write explores dialect writing tips for fiction writers.
A Clockwork Orange would have been very boring in proper English, and Trainspotting would lose its unique charm in a Cambridge accent. Dialects are important: even Lord of the Rings has Quenya and Sindarin as versions of the same base language!
Here’s how to write dialects into your fiction.
Let’s Define Dialects
A ‘dialect’ refers to specific linguistic mannerisms: why people talk in specific ways.
South African English uses the word ‘robot’, but other world regions would say ‘traffic light’. An Afrikaans-speaking person might use the word ‘ja’ (for yes) in conversation, so that you can tell they’re South African in one sentence.
• Someone from the American South might say, ‘Fixing to make breakfast.’
• Someone from Australia might say, ‘Going to make brekkie.’
That’s the basic part of dialect.
Two Different Dialects: Regional & Social
Dialects can be either:
- Regional, or
A regional dialect (Northern Irish, Cockney, South African) is attached to a region or larger area. A social dialect, instead, ties to a specific social group: for example, Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange.
Dialect Writing Tips
1. You’re Writing Dialects, Not Stereotypes
Dialects aren’t stereotypes: a dialect refers to how someone speaks, not how people might instead think they speak. Be clear when you represent a region or social group that has a dialect — or be judged, harshly, for the slip.
A dialect is specific, and must be something with which a speaker could self-identify. That’s how you do it right.
There’s a Wikipedia in the Scottish dialect: it’s not stereotypical, but surprisingly accurate.
2. Use One Sentence To Establish Your Dialect
Dialect works if one sentence can establish exactly where your character comes from. Words and phrases that fit with your dialect is how to do this.
‘Y’all ready for a party?’ is a sentence you might hear from a Southerner, and not from someone writing from Turkey. The word ‘horrorshow’ isn’t from a thirties American drama, but the word ‘golly’ might be.
If you can’t employ your dialect for one sentence, it’s going to be impossible to maintain it for longer. Get the first sentences absolutely right.
3. Describing Dialect In Your Narration
Writers like Stephen King and Joe Hill use a technique, whereby the accent is described by the narrator. Someone would say the word ‘aigs’ instead of ‘eggs’ — and narration points this out, usually there’s one in every King book.
It’s how to keep your characters creative, and tells you where they’re from (or how they’ll talk).
A great example is the beginning of Secret Window, Secret Garden: readers might still remember the iconic starting line, ‘You stole my story.’
More examples are from King’s other work, like repeated use of the colloquial ‘hoss’ (or horse) in The Dark Half by character George Stark.
4. Portraying the Right Accents
There are various ways to phrase dialectic accents in print, as long as you’re able to maintain it the whole story. It’s important to show pronunciation, and to make sure the reader’s natural reading instinct is the accent you’re trying to portray.
The word ‘grênd’ can be used as substitute for ‘grand’ (e.g. fancy) in some South African dialects. The phrase ‘yo’ mama’ would be used instead of making it sound, wrongly, like ‘your mother’ in joking or insulting context.
Dialects can, sometimes, let you bend the grammar — but it has to make sense, when the reader pronounces it in their head (or out loud).
Say, ‘beer can’ in an English accent, and you’re saying ‘bacon’ with a Jamaican accent: that’s why accents and dialects must be written down with care.
5. Getting to Know Dialects: Research
Dialects require research: writers have to know the dialect, and branch into it a little more. Reach out with YouTube examples, which can teach you different dialects in just a few minutes — and see if you can find existing, written examples through fiction.
The internet is a wealth of information, including lists that cover dialects.
The Last Word
In this post, Writers Write explored dialects and how to write them.
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:
- Writing Graphic Novels & Comic Strips
- 6 Bits Of Writing Advice From Mickey Spillane
- Writing The AI Character
- Writing Courtroom Fiction
- 5 Bits Of Writing Advice From James Joyce
- 6. Bits Of Writing Advice From Judy Blume
- Can Artificial Intelligence Write?
- 5 Bits Of Writing Advice From Patricia Highsmith
- About Beat Poetry