Using Colloquial Speech To Spice Up Dialogue

Hi everyone! The rush of New Years is over, and I hope you are all well rested, sober, and ready to tackle 2014. Have you created a simple Business Plan For Writers to help you define areas of development and to keep on track when it comes to your goals?

eliWhile you’re mulling that over, I’m turning the blog over to fellow writer Eli Dahle, who is tackling something fascinating: Colloquial Speech. Flavoring dialogue with unique speech habits or slang can create voice magic, but overdone, it can distance readers. Eli’s got some tips on how to handle these effectively.

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The successful use of colloquial speech in dialogue is a key element of character development.  Done right, it can impart a strong sense of realism – of time, of place, of character – to your work.  It can draw your readers into the story and help them relate to your characters. Colloquialisms can also be fun as you, the author, are given license to use bad grammar and indulge in profanity so long as it is true to your character.

Colloquial speech is the way any person – in this case, your character – talks in casual conversation.  Maybe your character stutters, or sprinkles her sentences with “um’s” or “er’s”.  Maybe she forgets her grammar when she is upset, quotes the bible, uses specific slang or spouts clichés.  The possibilities are endless.

There are no hard and fast rules when using colloquialisms other than the most basic: be true to your character by understanding how their experiences, education level, background and personality factor into the way she speaks. That said, the following are some tips that I like to keep in mind in order to maximize the impact of colloquialisms on the dialogue:

Further the Story

 As with other elements of storytelling, colloquialisms should further the story.  They do this by adding depth to characters through realistic dialogue. When using colloquialisms, think through your character and how he or she would speak, as well as why they speak that way.  Do it well and readers will become emotionally connected to the characters, and care what happens to them.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Dialogue, including colloquialisms, feels more authentic when pulled from real life.  Turn on your inner tape recorder and listen to how people around you talk.  The goal is inspiration, not transcription, as you will want to combine bits and pieces from various conversations. Once you have written a piece of dialogue, read it out loud.  Does it sound like something a living, breathing person might actually say?

 Keep it Real(istic)!

Fiction doesn’t have to BE real but it has to FEEL real. It is this believability that draws readers into your story, whether you are writing about 19th century Paris, the house next door, or a battle on the planet Neptron.  Using colloquialisms to strengthen the sense of place can pull readers into the story and make characters feel more believable.  But that doesn’t mean you need to include every ‘um’ or ‘err’ or stutter.  The author’s job is to include just enough to impart realism.

My personal favorites when it comes to believable colloquial writing include Mark Twain, Michael Chabon and Stephen King.  A Guardian newspaper list nominates Maugham, Steinbeck and Waugh.  Unfortunately, as any avid reader knows, popular fiction is rife with unsuccessful colloquialisms, from the dead dialogue of Dan Brown’s characters to the clichéd exclamations in 50 Shades of Grey.

Avoid Clichés and Stereotypes

It can be tempting to latch onto something readily identifiable or stereotypical when writing dialogue, such as a Southern twang or the word “ain’t”.  There’s nothing wrong with this but you don’t have to make your character sound as if she just crawled out of the Okefenokee Swamp.  In fact, doing this can achieve just the opposite: a cardboard cutout of a character.  The goal is to tailor speech just enough to create a unique, three-dimensional character.

Don’t Detract or Overdo It

I like to think of colloquialisms as the icing on the cake, something possible to do without but which, when done right, turns good into great.  If the colloquialisms clang and bang against the reader’s eardrum and detract from the story you are trying to tell then, hey, it may be better to forego the icing.  It’s also easy to go too far.

Take, for example, the following excerpt from Trainspotting:

“Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack?  They won’t let ye dae it.”

For me, it’s just too much and I find myself distracted from the story by the author’s overuse of colloquial speech.

With colloquialisms, less is often more.  I once wrote a mystery from the point of view of a character who spoke with a distinctive vernacular, thus freeing his colloquialisms from the confines of dialogue.  Readers of that early draft found the language realistic but distracting.  I overdid it with all my ‘aint’s’ and bad grammar.  One solution – taken by many authors, including me in my re-write – is to keep the narration clean and confine colloquialisms to the dialogue.

Colloquialisms can help form unique,  three-dimensional characters, powering their dialogue with authenticity.  But as with all literary devices they should be used with care.   The goal is to find a balance that will add to, not detract from, the story you are trying to tell.

Eli Dahle is a former journalist, Ivy-league educated international lawyer and author. He has published a number of newspaper and scholarly articles and is an active blogger.  His memoir, Behind the Codeine Curtain, is currently being prepared for publication and he is now working on a murder mystery set on a gilded-age estate.

ALSO…

ANGELA IS ON THE PROWL, discussing how Friction Between Characters Amps Up a Story over at Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn blog. If you want to see how you can create some tension clashes using your characters’ personalities, stop on in!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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24 Responses to Using Colloquial Speech To Spice Up Dialogue

  1. mrstinylady says:

    I’ve got a brain-twisting punctuation problem with southern colloquialisms that I hope you can resolve. Here is an example: “It was cold for the end of April and the air smelt like rain comin.’”
    The question is whether to put a period after the word but before the apostrophe which is then followed by end quote. Looks crazy. Thanks for your advice!

    • Hi there! In this case, the single apostrophe is part of the word comin (taking the place of the g), so those two should go together, followed by the period to end the sentence: “It was cold for the end of April and the air smelt like rain comin’.” I hope this helps 🙂

  2. Cheryl says:

    Am writing an historical novel at the beginning, during and after the Revolutionary Way, and am having difficulty having the slaves of the So. gentry (Virginia) speak. any suggestions or recommended resources. Thank yo

    • I actually happened to be speaking with a slang expert recently, and she suggested trying to access newspaper clipping and see if there are any letters online from that time period. I think this is great advice, and there is all sorts of stuff that has been scanned and loaded online–i bet some google searches would turn up some sources.

  3. ANother good blog. thanks!

  4. Great article; thank you.

    I am currently struggling with this very issue in my WIP – a fantasy in which I have an uneducated character (one of my antagonist’s lackeys) who uses a recognizable (if you’ve been to the UK) speech pattern that replaces ‘th’ with ‘f’ and ‘ing’ with ‘ink’. I’ve been told that it was too much and I needed to tone it down – and this was only in one sentence!

    The sentence in question read, “I don’t fink he knows nofink.”

    I can’t see where telling my readers that this character is ‘consonant-challenged’ (or some other explanatory effort) is a better tactic that just writing his limited dialog with the speech patterns that the character naturally uses.

    After all, he told me he talks like this, so…

    • Hi Michael,

      Mimicking real life dialects can be tough, because while it may be authentically written from what you know, it doesn’t always translate to the written word. Sometimes it becomes too much to follow as we read, even though it would be find if we heard it spoken.

      I had a similar issue in a novel where I had a lamia villain (Greek snake monster, basically) and i wanted to show her snake “ness” by drawing out her “s” in dialogue. It made sense and helped with the authenticity. But as I wrote, I saw that there were too many s’ in normal speech, and so too many words were being drawled out. It was messy and confusing to write. So I decided she would only drawl the s’ if they came at the end of a word, and this worked so much better. Less was more, I think–it gave the flavor I was going for without overwhelming the dialogue when reading.

      Perhaps in your case, fink for think makes sense, but nofink for nothing is slightly different as it’s a g ending not a k. What if you changed the last one to nothing or nuthin’ (and just drop the g?)

    • Eli Dahle says:

      Hi Michael, I can definitely relate to your problem. This may sound counterintuitive but – given that the comment was prompted by just one sentence – could it be that you need to use more colloquialisms rather than less? As I wrote in the post, finding a balance is a huge struggle. When I see your one sentence in isolation, I must admit that it sounds – I’m searching for a word here – strange?

      I’m not acquainted with the particular dialect you are using but it may be that further use of it could establish its legitimacy. In any event, I would be suspect of criticisms based on nothing more than one sentence.

      Feel free to contact me by e-mail or on my blog if you’d like to discuss offline – I’d be happy to take a look at some additional samples of your dialogue in order to give you more than this shot-in-the-dark response.

      • Eli,

        At this point in the story, this particular character only made a brief and not very vocal appearance. I wanted to use his speech pattern to distinguish him from the three other characters in the scene who were talking…without the ubiquitous, ‘so-and-so said after every snippet of the conversation.

        Wouldn’t it be lovely if there were a way to write in various accents?

        Cheers!

  5. Dialogue can be 60% or more in a novel, so honing our skills in this area is a must. Thanks for tackling this topic–the bigger emotional bang we can get with dialogue the better!

  6. So happy to be reading this right now, since I’m getting ready to start drafting a new novel. Voice is on my list of things to figure out this week, so I’ll be thinking on your tips. Thanks for sharing, Eli!

    • Eli Dahle says:

      Becca, thanks a lot for your comment. Good luck with your novel! I hope this proves helpful as you put pen to paper. As you progress, I would be interested to hear more about it. Eli

  7. Elizabeth Varadan says:

    Good post. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

  8. Rosi says:

    Perfect timing! I am about to embark on a new year’s rewrite and need to clean up my dialogue. Thanks!

  9. I once had a writing professor who said to study Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” to learn how to write dialogue. I think your advice fits in with how that story is written. Great post!

    • Eli Dahle says:

      Christine, I am embarrassed to admit that I have not read that but you can bet that now I have bumped it to the top of my reading list. I must have been subconsciously channeling the master.

  10. Tamara Meyers says:

    Thank you for the great advice, Eli. I like using colloquialisms to give credibility to a character but try to be careful not to over do. One of the characters in my wip is a recently freed ‘negra’ who still uses the terms and speech patterns of the plantation. I’ll try to keep your advice in mind as I write.

    • Eli Dahle says:

      Tamara, thank you for your comment. Good luck with your work in progress. Writing dialogue from a bygone era can be a great challenge but an equally great thrill as you bring an era to life.

  11. Jemi Fraser says:

    Great tips! I’ve actually put down books when I got tired of having to translate the dialogue in my head but I do love when the author gets it right! 🙂

  12. Barbara Blank says:

    Well worth reading. I liked his use of examples to illustrate his point.

  13. I can see where this would be a powerful tool to use. Putting it among my writer’s tools. Thanks!!

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