Dialects in Dialog

Q: I grew up in Kansas, but my favorite granddad is Texan, and he had a strong accent. A friend read a story of mine recently and liked it but said the dialog seemed contrived. But it was real, it was just like he sounded. How do I give the sense of him without sounding like I’m making it up? The Accent’s Real

A: Dear Real Accent: The trick is to capture the sound of someone. Just like we don’t use all the words someone has said because it would be way more than we need for dialog in memoir (or fiction, for that matter), we need to pick and choose where to drop in an accent. You don’t want to be heavy-handed about it; a sprinkling goes a long way.

Here are some tips for writing realistic dialog that doesn’t slow the read.

At the top of the list: Avoid overuse of phonetic spelling.

Don’t fill in with lots of repeated vowels to give the sound of an accent. Instead, use expressions the speaker would have used and let that reflect their true voice.

Take a look at this example:  “Ahh ain’t goin’ there tennight, noooo way. Doncha git it?”

It’s tedious to read words spelled phonetically, it takes too much effort, especially when dialog has some length. Phonetic spelling will have your readers turning pages and not because they can’t wait to read more. Improved, the sentence above could read: “I ain’t goin’ there tonight, no way. Do you get it?”

Southern accents can be strong with a lot of ending consonants dropped in speech. “It’s hotter’n blazes out there, kids. Ahm goin’ ta stay in heah, you kin bet on that.”  Improved, it could be: “It’s hotter than blazes out there, kids. I’m stayin’ inside, you can bet on that.” Do you hear the accent in the second version? Find the words that carry the voice, and count on your reader for getting a good sense of someone by what they say as well as by their actions in a scene you’re re-creating.

Regional or racial turns of phrase — even cliches — can go a long way in good dialog. “What? You think I’m made of money?” my grandma said, snapping open her pocketbook with a frown I’d seen a thousand times. “Take it, take it. Have a good time for me, that’s all I ask.” Is this a grandmother from Connecticut? Louisiana? Probably not. She sounds like a New Yorker to me, with some roots in Eastern Europe.

And don’t forget, a well known non-English word here or there can add the flavor of a person, too. With that, I’ll say adios.


Have a question about memoir writing? Email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net. I’ll do my best to help.

And be sure to visit Facebook.com/100yearsinthelife for updates on my new book, “100 Years In the Life of an American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010” (publishing spring 2013). All “LIKES” of the Facebook page are appreciated! And the photo contest for the book is coming soon. Ten winners will be published. See my website for more, www.suzannesherman.com.

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