Take Care with ACCEnts and dialects
Writing accents and dialect is not easy.
The key to showing dialect or a foreign accent, either in dialogue or a first person narrator, is ‘Easy does it’. Suggest the speech style with some key words and foibles – and choose carefully, as there is a danger of creating a caricature based on stereotypes. If it is crucial that an important character in your book speaks in dialect or with an accent, for goodness’ sake, do some solid research; don’t just wing it. Listen to TV shows featuring the region, or better still, as writing is your medium, get some books that feature similar characters and see how the dialogue looks on the page and what comes across as natural to you.
• Once you tell your readers that Giorgio speaks with an Italian accent, they will supply it in their heads. You only need a few astute and subtle clues here and there – concentrate more on speech patterns than words – and then you won’t deliver awful stereotypical lines like: “Donna worry, itsa justa ma bee-oo- tiful bambino.” Remember that , once you start dropping a ‘g’ or rendering ‘th’ as ‘z’, you are committed to doing it throughout, because your foreign speaker isn’t going to say ‘th’ intermittently. “Zee men in zee workshop said zee car will be ready in zee afternoon.” Pretty ugly and unwieldy. Let the reader supply his or her own version inside the head.
• Dialect in dialogue should not be so authentic that it becomes impossible for the reader to make sense of it. A Scottish character might justifiably say: “The bauchle cam ben the hoose; I cood nae sae Awa an bile yer heid! Whit’s a body tae die?” but the average reader might find the effort of interpreting lengthy speeches like this too great and just give up on such a novel.
• Similarly, be careful about using snippets of foreign languages to create authenticity and then feeling the need to use some obvious contrivance to explain it to the reader. For example: “Punktlickeit ist Alles!” Helmut said, but it came as no surprise to me that he, being German, valued punctuality above all else. Either let it stand and presume your audience will figure it out from the context – or else forget it. It is, however, possible to ‘explain’ a little more subtly in the text that follows.
Eg: “Punktlickeit ist Alles!” Helmut said.
I looked at the enormous office wall clock and shrugged. “What’s ten minutes between friends?”
Readers baulk at speech that doesn’t look and sound right. Modules 6 and 7 of the ‘My Novel’ Writing Course look in depth at the writing of dialogue. As well, you benefit from my mentoring throughout as you write your novel, assignment by assignment.
"Dialogue is one of your best tools for characterisation. Learn to get the most out of it."
Jim Parsons, writing mentor
If you would like writing coach Jim Parsons to assess your writing skills or some excerpts from your manuscript free of charge, download the assessment tasks HERE and send your work to email@example.com
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