Dialogue in Fiction – What it Can’t Do

by Bill Henderson

“I got dis crowbar heah, whattya want me tuh dew wid it?”

Can you identify the regional dialect of the speaker? Three guesses. New Yawk? Blue Ridge Mountains? Piedmont South? The answer won’t help you much. It could be any or all.

If you held a gun to my head I’d say New Yorker. But watch what happens when I move one word and add an appellation:

“I got dis heah crowbar, Billy-Bob, whattya want me tuh dew wid it?”

So much for New Yawk. Now it’s Mayberry.

Most of us are not masters of written phonetic dialect. Even those who are (Henry Roth and Peter Matthiessen come to mind) make you work harder than most of us want to work to decipher what’s being spoken by the characters.

If you have to read a passage twice to get it, that’s one time too many. More than twice and the passage qualifies as a distraction. Too many distractions and readers will close your book and lay it aside, perhaps forever.

Today’s best wisdom on the dialect question is to indicate it by diction (word choice) and syntax (how words are arranged). Phonetic spellings are frowned on.

For New York, the example above would be rendered: “I got this crowbar, here, what d’ya want me to do with it?”

It works. And without distraction. There is one tiny concession to dialect – “d’ya” – which is one of the “fair use” phoneticisms; it indicates a colloquial speaker without trying to pin it to a region (always a stretch).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Elizabeth Mallard February 11, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Amen, bro. Occasionally a book is really well dialected–The Commitments, by Roddy Doyle for example. But still it’s a strain. I think using one example as you do later is GREAT. Thanks.

2 Stormy February 11, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Definitely agree! I think a good example off the top of my head is Hagrid in the Harry Potter books. Certain words are spelled to show his uneducated dialect but it still flows well in the dialogue and isn’t distracting. I’ve read books where this was poorly done; it’s too difficult to read and I ended up losing focus on the story itself just trying to decipher it all.

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