Lesson #98 Speech in Dialogue: What Works and What Doesn’t

Brace yourselves. You are about to read the BADDEST of the BAD dialogue.  Hang with me. I promise it’s worth it!

“Hey Kayla, look! Do you see that person sneaking up on Kim, Kayla? Kayla, I’m worried because, Kayla, it looks like she has a knife!”

“Fiddlesticks and fuzzlebuckets, Darcie! Darcie, you are soooooo right! But…Darcie, I think, Darcie, that it looks like… Becca! Darcie, it’s Becca sneaking up on Mom with a…butter knife?”

“I see what you mean, Kayla. It is a butter knife. Not very effective as a murder weapon.”

“Oh. Darcie. Mom is carrying some scones. I can see the steam, Darcie. Becca must be running at her with a knife so she can butter them and eat them, Darcie. Darcie, I wonder why we weren’t invited?”

“I hear ya, Kayla. I would love to eat a hot, buttery scone about now.”

Do I even need to point out what’s wrong in the section above? Have you ever heard people talk like that?

I have seen many people write dialogue like that.

“Howdee Becca an’ Kim. I’s seein’ that y’all’s are about t’partake ‘n dee-lishous scones. Y’know, I’s got me a hankerin’ fer scones. As muh mamma used t’say when I’s a dee-oo drop on a grasshopper’s whisker, scones is th’ brekfas of God! ‘Specially when they’s got yummy butter on’em. Why’dn’t y’all invite me ‘n Kayla fer some?”

Read that out loud ten times fast.

Yeah. Thought so. You can’t even read it one time fast.

Dialect is a real thing. Go to the south, the west, Maine (ayup!), and you’ll hear very different speech patterns. Then there are accents. Oh Boy. Please pahhs the grehy pooo-pohn.

How do you get a dialect or accent across to readers without provoking them to poking their eyeballs out with a pencil?

Hints. Rather than phonetically spelling it out, use a few colloquial words and or phrases.

“Y’all really should have invited us, instead of sneaking off like that.” Kayla crossed her arms and tapped her foot.

You can see from that example that Kayla is southern.

“I’m feeling a little left out by youse guys.”

Clearly, I’m from the north.

“Ach!” Can be an expression that causes one to think Scottish.

“Aye, mate.” Could be Brit or Australian…or pirate.

“She clung to him like stink on a dog!” That’s more of a southern expression.

“Fugetaboutit!” New Yorker anyone?

Then there is era. What words were part of vocabulary in the time setting of your book? 1970s – groovy, man! 1990s California: Dude. That was like, totally rad, you know what I’m sayin’?

You’d never hear a Victorian using any of those terms or calling one another bruh or bae (did you know that means poop in a Scandinavian language?)

Part of creating believable, non-irritating unique speech patterns requires some research.

Sandra Dallas, in her book Tallgrass, has an American-born Japanese character named Daisy, who is allowed out of the internment camp to work as a domestic for a beet farmer. It’s in the midst of World War 2.  Even though English is her native language, she goes above and beyond to use as much slang as possible to prove she is as American as anyone else. Daisy is asked show she is doing:

“A-okay.” Daisy pinched her thumb and dog finger together before she turned to me. “You’ve got to be Rennie. How’s the world been treating you, Rennie? Okeydokey?”

            “Okeydokey,” I repeated.

            “That’s good. You going to help me with the breakfast dishes, or do you have to go to school?”

            “I have to go to school.”

            “I’ve got your number.” Daisy laughed and turned to Mom. “You want me to scrub the kitchen floor? These boys tracked in a whole lot of mud. Boys!”

            Carl looked at Dad, then Mom, then back at Dad again. “Daisy’s pretty snazzy for a Japanese girl,” he said uncertainly. “We grew up in Los Angeles. She likes to jive.”

There’s a lot going on here. A lot to dissect. Dallas had to do a lot of research for her book to get the cadence of the language of that era. Not only for jiving Daisy, but for the eastern Colorado sugar beet farmers. Without gross misspellings and weird phonetics, the reader knows they are no longer in the 21st century. You can feel the tension of Dasiy’s need to fit in. All because of word choice.

Aside from language, there are the happenings. How often today do you hear a teen girl ask about scrubbing floors rather than attending school? Setting and action also hint to a time and place. If done well, the reader can hear the accents.

Then you have formal versus informal speech. In reality, people leave out words. Conversational speech is quite informal and violates many rules of grammar. When writing dialogue, be true to the speech, NOT the Chicago Manual of Style.

“Are you going to eat all of those scones by yourself?” vs. “You gonna eat all those?”

Now, if your character was not a native English speaker, the first question may be more appropriate. But if you character is an average American, the second is more natural sounding.

Speech is efficient. That’s why we use contractions. The only time they are not used is in academic research papers and by people who are not necessarily native speakers. Or, they may not be used by a character who wants to appear snooty and very upper class. If your character doesn’t use contractions, he or she may come across as putting on airs. It’s only okay if that’s the intended effect.

I could write a couple thousand more words on this subject, but I won’t. Because you won’t read it. So, if there is ONE THING I want you to take away from this lesson, it’s this:

Less is more.

Take note of accents, era, and dialect when you read great works of fiction. Look for books at the top of best-selling lists and read them. Those authors are there because they are doing a lot right. Read them and learn.

Man. I am hungry for a scone. Are you?

With pen to paper,


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