Dialects and accents in fiction are a particular source of contention for me. One of the characters in my historical fiction is a Native American girl who speaks English as a second language. Critique partners and my own ears have told me that her speech needs work, so for literally months I’ve been thinking about the issue of how to write dialects and accents in a believable way. Then, while I was reading Maggie Stiefvater’s THE RAVEN BOYS, I discovered some easy techniques to show the reader how the character sounds. First:
The voice was careful, masculine, and local; the vowels had all the edges sanded off.
The simplicity of this just kills me. Steifvater doesn’t go into detail describing the individual sounds of the character’s speech, the phonetics, how the sentences are put together. She succinctly tells how the words sound, then writes them the normal way, and the reader’s brain fills in the rest. In this particular case, the story takes place in Virginia. If you’re familiar with the way Virginians talk, then the “local” reference will immediately clue you in to how the speaker sounds. And if you’re unfamiliar with the accent, you get a good feel for it with the description she gives of the vowels.
Here’s another example of how you can describe someone’s speech when you’re referencing a known language or accent:
When he was uncertain about something, his Southern accent always made an appearance, and it was in evidence now.
Not only does this clue the reader in as to how the character speaks, but it also reveals his frame of mind. This is an excellent example of description that does more than just describe.Here’s one more sample, this time describing an elderly English gentleman’s speech:
Without further preamble, Malory launched into a one-sided conversation about the weather, the historical society’s past four meetings, and how frustrating his neighbor with the collie was. Gansey understood about three quarters of the monologue. After living in the UK for nearly a year, Gansey was good with accents, but Malory’s was often difficult, due to a combination of slurring, chewing, extreme age, bad breeding, and a poor phone connection.
The conversation that follows doesn’t include any hard-to-read pronunciations or truncated verbs (talkin’, eatin’, drivin’, etc.). Malory’s rambly style of speaking, combined with the previous description, are enough to give the reader a feel for how he sounds: like an old British man who slurs his words and eats while he talks.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
M Pax says
Great tips! If dialects are too heavy in the writing, they can be really hard to follow. Less is more. 🙂
Rosemary Gemmell says
Love this advice – too much dialect is definitely annoying!
Traci Kenworth says
Good post!! I try not to frustrate the reader with dialects, but these tips on how to “use” them by describing “how” words are said are fabulous!! Can’t wait to put this to use!!
Leah (aka Mary_not_Martha) says
Fascinating! Thanks for the post y’all 😉
Sharon K. Mayhew says
Great post! I have a couple characters in my HF that have very strong cockney accents. I ‘ave te thing about it when they be talkin’. Da drops ‘is h an’ ‘is d.
Karoline Kingley says
I am currently reading “The Grapes of Wrath,” and to be honest, John Steinbeck’s southern dialect looks confusing on page and makes it a pain to read. I feel like this blog post would have improved the book.
I always point people to Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” for an example of clear dialect without being annoying. It was so good, I found myself talking in a Southern accent for hours after each time I put the book down. Well, I thought I was doing a Southern accent. Apparently accents are not my strong suit!
Becca Puglisi says
Natalie, actually all of the samples here are from The Raven Boys (should’ve been clearer there), which tells you what a beautifully-written book it is.
Jeff, I agree. I tried to read Forrest Gump but couldn’t do it. Apparently, lots of people enjoyed it, but in my opinion, reading for pleasure shouldn’t be that much work. 😉
Oh my gosh, Lindy. Wuthering Heights. Best of luck with that, lol.
Diane, I like that idea of adding a local-sounding name. If it’s possible to do that, it could definitely help define the character as being from a certain area with a certain sound.
Matt, that’s a great point. Unfortunately, whenever I’ve tried to write the dialect, it sounds so incredibly phony. For me, something like this may work better.
Donna K. Weaver says
Excellent tips, but I don’t think I’d ever be brave enough to write dialects or accents.
Wonderful stuff as usual, Becca. Great examples. Thanks for a very useful post.
Matthew MacNish says
It can all depend, of course, and sometimes a more authentic approach is called for, but accents and dialects are often one thing where telling can work better than showing.
Wendy's Writing says
This is great! I am so bad at dialects!
This is timely for me, although not as a writer (this time) but as a reader. I’m struggling through the dialect headwind that is Wuthering Heights. Must be the March weather that made me think it was a good idea to reread it.
Anyway, great tips, as always!
Diane Carlisle says
If your character has an accent, it would be good to give them a name which is heavily associated with the area with which the accent originated. And give a hint of this accent somewhere right before the dialogue so it’s fresh in the reader’s mind.
She has a spanish accent–cuban, mexican, doesn’t matter. Call her Isabella Fernando or Consuela DiGregario. When she speaks, it is almost a given.
“My name is Isabella Fernando. I’m a native of Mexico. Please follow me into the villa.”
He is from Australia, a surfer in his early 40’s and his name is Dave Robinson.
“It’s a bit heavy on the air today. Can I get you a beer?”
If they speak culturally, the accent should come out in their dialogue when they speak. At least, it does for me, even if I’m reading without the annoying dialects.
I think the spelling is so distracting that the accents do not come through naturally enough and without strain. Done with just a hint of cultural difference in speech pattern and verbiage, minus the freakish spelling, our brains will adjust.
Susanne Drazic says
Hi, Becca. Wonderful tips!
Great stuff, Becca. Nailing down accents in print without being annoying is tough. I read a novel that was so loaded with dialect I almost couldn’t get through it, even though I liked the story (interestingly, my wife didn’t mind the dialect at all).
In my WiP, I’m trying more for the descriptive approach like those you cite in the post, though I’ll use certain phrases that set the region.
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tips, Becca. I love that sentence from The Raven Boys.