Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Diagnosing Dialect

In crafting a narrative it is imperative to draw the audience into a world that is both believable and relatable for those observing the narrative unfold.

The primary means of creating believable worlds are the details that are infused into the world. Details that range from the style of vehicles to the very culture that the protagonist experiences. Every detail has it's place in creating the world. The more details that are explored the more believable the world becomes while setting the tone of the piece.

An often used technique to infuse detail is to add dialect into both dialog and perception of the individuals in the narrative.

The use of regional specific phrases or words in a narrative can add a sense of realism to characters. It can add depth and even set the tone. Used properly, it is an ideal means to reiterate the setting without actually stating the details time and again. Adding an Irish accent, British slang or even a southern drawl can add that touch more to the world. No longer are characters disconnected, one piece of dialog can evoke a sense of culture and a place within that world.

That is, if the dialect is applied to the narrative properly.

More often than not, the use of dialect in both dialog and perceptions is misused. Dialect becomes both a distraction and detracts from the narrative, jolting the audience free of the creator's spell.

Once the culture and setting have been established it is desirable to sweep the audience away into a wave of ever increasing developments. Adding dialect to every other line or even in some instances, to every line of dialog is no different than infusing every line with repeated setting or cultural details.

Reliance on the use of a dialect for perception and dialog usually results in poor character development. Interjecting a thick accent of an over sampled region or culture often conveys 'stereotype' to the audience. As that interpretation is absorbed by the audience it becomes drastically difficult to convey any further character development for that character.

A common practice for adding dialect is to add improper grammar and misspelled words to emphasize a dialect. This creates a secondary problem. Not only does your audience rapidly grow tired of reading this approach but most will outright reject reading this style.

"...There's ain't nuthin I's can do 'bout that, she's busted mistah"  The grungy mechanic smiled at me through his crooked yellow teeth.
"Ser I dun think ya understan meh, I's needs to get ta the mill, liken ta hors ago..."

In this style it doesn't seem too bad but when you read page after page of this, an audience is more than likely to drop the narrative and find something more enveloping. Not only will this likely melt your processor and make finding real spelling errors neigh impossible but it's not very engrossing because the audience needs to constantly assess what they are viewing and translate it into what they understand.

"...There ain't nothing I can do about that, she's busted mister." The grungy mechanic smiled at me through his crooked yellow teeth. His accent was so thick it took me a moment to understand.
"Sir, I don't think you understand me. I need to get to the mill like two hours ago." I pleaded.
In this variation the dialect is clear but also audience friendly. If the setting and dialect is established early in the piece then there is no need to reiterate the dialect except in the more 'drawn' situations.

Whether it's a regional piece using accents or even a historical period piece so long as the dialect is established with the world early in the piece there is no cause to constantly re-state the detail.

Do you use dialect in your piece? How do you implement it?


Michele Shaw said...

My current wip has no strange dialect, but I agree, it can enhance, or horribly detract from the read. A writer has to be a pro to carry it off, and even then, it's tough. For example, my mother just finished The Help, and said the story was good, but the dialect "wore her down." She couldn't wait to finish. Other people have told me it didn't bother them in that book at all.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great tips. Dialect can be a great tool if used properly, but as you pointed out, there are several pitfalls to watch out for.

Laura Pauling said...

I might choose word choices from a culture before trying to incorporate a dialect. And I wouldn't do it often. Great post. :)

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, it certainly does. A recent book I was poking at drove me absolutely batty. Every sentence was infused with a Scottish accent, misspellings and regional terms. I could never really get into the story.

Lisa, thanks for the comment! Yeah, as with many details if you repeat it too often it's just like telling us the protagonist's eyes are blue every so many lines.

Laura, I'm right there with you. If you select regional words and sprinkle them throughout the piece it adds that extra detail without going overboard. Everything in moderation. Kudos for the comment!

Draven Ames said...

"More often than not, the use of dialect in both dialog and perceptions is misused. Dialect becomes both a distraction and detracts from the narrative, jolting the audience free of the creator's spell."

Well said and it sums up the article nicely. People get carried away with it. Your second example is nice though. Good article.

PW.Creighton said...

Draven, so very true. People get carried away with adding dialect or details with such repetition that it breaks the story. Thanks for stopping by!

Amber said...

The use of dialect can be exhausting. Your first example is a good one to show this. I do enjoy it, to a certain degree, in the right story. As Michele said, it does seem to take a pro to pull it off.

I am reading a galley right now where dialect is used heavily in it. The story is intriguing, the characters are driven, however, the use of a local dialect is plain old distracting me. It makes my reading much slower, and that's frustrating. Pepper it in small doses, apply it in a classy way, then you've got me.

PW.Creighton said...

Amber, yeah it really does. I just perceive it as a repetitive detail. Sure you can remind the audience when that detail is really strong but for the most part keep it thin. The audience isn't exactly 'thick' when you're trying to convey something. Thanks for the post!

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