Have you ever read dialogue that seemed flat, uninteresting, or unbelievable? Or, worse, have you ever written dialogue like this? Dialogue can easily make or break a story by helping to develop characters, control the plot’s pace, and provide readers with necessary information through “showing, not telling.”
Throughout the next 3 posts, I’d like to share some simple ways to improve your dialogue to help make your story the best it can be. Today, let’s talk about the use of dialect.
Dialect is not to be confused with accents, although accents may help to accentuate dialect. Dialect is rather the specific nuances of how people talk and pronounce their words, depending on where they are from. Proper use of dialect can go a long way in making your dialogue believable because it helps create consistency for each character and serves to immediately differentiate your characters from each other.
I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and people there ask “Please?” when they don’t understand what you said—as opposed to “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” I thought this was perfectly normal until I moved out of state. Someone would say something to me that I didn’t hear correctly, I’d response with “Please?” and they’d either look at me like I was from Mars, or they’d respond with “Please, what?”
I soon came to discover that this was a uniquely Cincinnati thing. Others who realized this would ask me—after I said “Please?” to them—“Are you from Cincinnati?” It seems it’s probably the only place in the world where people do this!
That’s an example of dialect. And, if you use it well, it will help your characters come to life.
If an American travels overseas, people may say, “Oh, you’re from America,” based on how that person speaks. But what does an American sound like? In America, we know that being from New Jersey sounds very different than being from Lubbock, Texas, and different still than being from Minnesota.
Dialect includes pronunciation (Bostonians leaving “r”s off the ends of their words, Southerners adding a drawl to their vowels), unique phrasing or words assimilated into their speech (“Please?” in Cincinnati, “eh?” in Canada), and particular, identifying speech patterns (think “Valley Girl” from the 80’s in California).
When trying to write authentic dialect that captures the intricacies of speech from various areas, it’s best to be around people from that area for a period of time. Don’t always rely on the dialect you hear in the movies. When possible, go to where your character is from and spend time just observing and listening to the natives who live there.
Bring a recorder if possible so you can hear the speech again and again. Also be on the lookout for mannerisms and how people conduct themselves when in conversation. Do you notice in certain geographical areas that people are more boisterous in their conversations, maybe more apt to interrupt each other, or maybe women tend to be more submissive when in conversation with a group of men in certain places.
When I was growing up, I had a friend who was part of a large, Italian family. When they all got together around the dinner table, you’d be lucky to get two words into their conversations. And you’d think they were all mad at each other, the way the volume escalated, accompanied by flailing arms and intense facial expressions. But that wasn’t the case. That was simply their natural method of conversation. That family dinner table held no place for introverts!
All of these kinds of nuances help create full, rich, and believable dialogue that helps your reader instantly tell your characters apart.
If you can’t go to an area to listen to dialect, do as much research as possible before you start writing. It will make a huge difference in your dialogue if you can capture the heart of an area’s dialect.
When one of your characters burst into a scene and begins talking, your reader should know immediately who that person is long before you identify him or her. By doing your homework, this will happen.
Next time, I’ll discuss how the words you choose for your characters can enhance their dialogue and make it sound more natural.