Using Slang and Dialect in Writing

Well howdy y’all! Ah sure hope you’s doin’ fahn this’n here Thursdy mornin’!

Okay. I’ll stop. It’s torture for the eyes, reading that.

Accents, slang, dialects! These are methods one may use to add a sense of local color or flavor to a story, or even just a scene in an unfamiliar location to your characters. But one must be careful when writing out these accents and dialects because if you get too focused on replicating a form of speech perfectly in the written word, all you’re doing is causing the reader undue aggravation as they try to parse not only how to say the words, but piece the sentence together for something meaningful.

Here’s what I mean by that!

My sentence above is kind of an amalgamation of a few Southern dialects of American English. I basically say it like Foghorn Leghorn, or more recently one Francis Underwood, President of the United States of America. If you simply hear the dialect, the accent, the slang, it’s often a simple matter to truly hear what’s being said and feel the location.

But when it’s written, you’re creating an additional barrier to your readers that they must then learn how to parse and read in order to gain any understanding from what your characters are saying.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is my classic example of this. There are scenes in this novel that have dialects so thick on the page that, were you to sit and tease out precisely what and how the words are being spoken just by the way they are written, you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt precisely how the characters speak. But in so doing, you grind your forward progress to a halt while you read this dialogue and piece it together.

There’s a better way. At least, there is to me. Instead of painstakingly reproducing every last nuance of the accent or dialect, choose just one or two markers that change up the way the dialogue reads, make brief mention of the character’s way of speaking in the narrative, and then you move on!

So instead of that awful greeting up above I might instead write “Well howdy, y’all! I sure hope you’s doin’ fine this here Thursday mornin’!” By starting with yokel colloquialisms such as “howdy” and “y’all”, you immediately put a Southern drawl on things, and then you fine tune it a little by keeping the slangish term “you’s” and drop out the “g” on the end of words to continue honing down the way the accent sounds. “This here” isn’t slang or spelled wrong, but it is out of the ordinary way of speaking “proper American English” and helps solidify the armchair Southerner sound. It’s much easier to read because you haven’t moved so far away from what is familiar to readers that they have to work to understand it. Don’t make the reader work just to understand the words on the page.

The point of all of this is to say that you absolutely can reproduce an accent down to its last details in written form, so that you’re absolutely sure no one is reading the accent wrong, but why would you bother? It’s like adding too much description for things that people are already familiar with. Highlight the differences and keep the narrative moving, don’t let the differences dominate the narrative.

And at the end of the day, this is one humble author’s opinion and you can feel free to take or leave it as you see fit. But as with any of my advice, maybe give it a try, run some exercises with some accents, and see how they read after the fact.

And always remember to write the hell on!

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