Monday, January 21, 2013

Hey, Y'all: Dialects and Slang

by Riley Redgate

Haff you ever read dialogue vere the vords look a beet strange?

'ave you read dialog where words sound right funny in yer 'ead 'cause of 'ow they show up?

Or maybe them quotations get to seemin' real Southern alluva sudden. (Billy, fetch me mah shotgun!)

I haven't seen many stylistic choices that polarize readers as much as written dialects do. Some people despise them with every fiber of their being, and words like "gimmick" inevitably get thrown out with regard to them in conversation.

Personally, I think it adds a nice bit of variety to the mix. Some writers use it to great effect—one of my favorite series has dialect not only in dialogue, but in the actual first-person narration. But sometimes it feels awkward, or worse, unnecessary.

It's certainly an interesting choice, because it takes "Show, don't tell" to an extreme. I mean, if you simply wanted to get a description of a voice in there, you could write, "She spoke with a thick Slavic accent." Or, of course, you could describe a voice more figuratively—"Each of his words was crisp and well-measured, a bite of something acidic." But when you encounter an author who writes the words as they actually sound under the influence of that accent, it's a constant reminder. If it's well-done, it turns into a pleasant auditory effect rather than a weird garbled distraction. A bit of atmosphere.

It is a fine line to walk, though. If "dialected" words aren't there enough, they'll jar when they crop up again. On the other hand, if they're too present, you risk complete incomprehensibility. Yeow.

It's an important issue, because it brings to the forefront the issue of sound in writing. I was a musician long before I was a writer, so rhythm and sound are paramount to me, especially when I'm doing line edits. Most people even read their manuscripts aloud at some point to get that auditory perspective. Either way, whether you internalize the flow of a line or hear it with your earholes, you can tell when it clicks into place—and you can sure as hell tell when it's clunky. Sound helps bring shape to the form of sentences, paragraphs, pages. It speeds the pace or drags it behind; it casts a line for the reader or yanks them in. And hoo boy, does it make or break humorous writing.

Most people know sound is an important step, but rarely do writers have to confront sound so directly in the drafting stage as in the case of dialects. I mean, you've got onomatopoeia, etc., but for so many people, the real 'music' of the writing often comes through in later drafts.

Slang, too—another sound-related tool—seems to polarize readers. Maybe not to the extent of dialects, but I've noticed that weird curses or terminology can quickly end up seeming like a crutch. Unfamiliar terms pop out of the text, naturally, and since the readers are extra-conscious of them, they sometimes seem like they're there twice as much as they actually are. There's a recent trend toward futuristic slang in speculative manuscripts—and it's a fine line to walk. If it doesn't sound cool, it'll feel awkward. And just like dialect, it can't fade into the background altogether, or suddenly it'll pop up again like a friend you forgot you had. And the interaction will be uncomfortable. And y'all don't want that happenin', now, do ya?

Are you a fan or a foe of dialects? How about slang?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


Liza said...

Good timing. Today I was writing one sentence where someone was trying to mimic someone else. I stuck in some dialect (and it was hard to get it right), but other than that, for the most part, I tend to leave it out.

JeffO said...

It's funny, how it works. When it's done well, it doesn't bother me (Watership Down with the character, Keehar). But I read an Elizabeth George book and I thought her use of 'sound' was utterly horrid. I liked the book itself, but reading her dialect set my teeth on edge, and it was how the principal POV character and his friends spoke, so it was pretty steady, as opposed to the bits and pieces with Keehar.

Jemi Fraser said...

I've quit reading a few books when either the dialogue or slang was over the top or took me too long to decipher, but I love when it's used well.

Brian Jacques does a nice job with his Redwall series :)

Suzanne Payne said...

I'm like you Riley. I've been a musician most of my life now. A writer for only about 4 years. I'm very tuned into how words sound because being a singer, you're required to pronounce different languages correctly and to be able to phonetically decipher words and passages so you can understand how you'll have to produce the sounds the director wants. And I LOVE British and Australian accents. I've chosen to show more of my Australian accents by changing the vowels in only a few words. Too much is overwhelming, I think. As far as British accents, it's much harder, so I use their word choices more than actually changing the words around. I think it's a good balance. I hope anyway. :)
Great topic! Yeh dun good kiddo. ;)

Tammy Theriault said...

slang...well, that really really depends on what i am reading. and if it flows

Debra McKellan said...

There was a book I had to read (and I don't think I did lol) in one of my classes, where the characters all spoke with Yiddish accents. And I think there was one where the characters all had Irish accents. And the authors wrote everything that way. It was awfully grating. lol

Sometimes it's good, though, especially if a reader doesn't understand that "They have an Afro-Franco accent." What the heck does that sound like? lol

Riley Redgate said...

Liza - it's just so much easier to leave it out, most of the time! I admire dialect writers for their tenacity, if nothing else, haha.

Jeff - Ooh, Watership Down is a great example! And Jemi, I love your example of Redwall, too. I guess talking animals just lend themselves to funky-sounding voices. XD

Suzanne - Yaaay! Music high-five. I agree with you on the English word choices - they're so distinctive by themselves that more can feel like overkill very quickly.

Tammy - that's for sure. :) Gotta go with the flow, bro.

Debra - ahahah! Yeah, doesn't help much when an author tells me, "She sounded as if she was from Northern Kyrgyzstan." It's like, hrm, I'm going to need a little more direction than that, buddy...