Storyssentials: Dialect

“De man ain’t asleep — he’s dead. You hold still — I’ll go en see.”

He went, and bent down and looked, and says:

“It’s a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He’s ben shot in de back. I reck’n he’s ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face — it’s too gashly.”

That confusing bit of prose comes from the famous Huckleberry Finn and it probably couldn’t be published today because of a new unwritten rule: In written stories, dialect isn’t about accents. Dialect is grammar. Thank goodness Twain was published, but let’s take a look at this new rule…

Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, you could say that dialect seldom breaks down into umlauts and gutturals, vowel points and dropped Gs, all slathered with a nice layer of contractions and apostrophes. Though phonetics factor into identifying various regions of speech, the words used and the order in which they are used creates any given dialect. In his Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (here on Amazon), Dave King shares this little nugget in his chapter devoted reading your manuscript aloud:

“When you use an unusual spelling, you are bound to draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue and onto the means of getting it across. If the dialect gets thick enough, it isn’t read so much as translated… So how do you get a character’s geographical or education or social background across? The best way is through word choice, cadence, and grammar.”

We could just call this regional syntax. When we split hairs over the minute details in grammar, we can discover the country of origin, education, income level, and social circles of the speaker. Is it hard work on the side of the writer? Yes, up front, and it takes more guts than much of writing, but the payoffs end up as great as All the Pretty HorsesThe Secret Pilgrim, and The Price of Milk and Honey.

Let’s take the sentence:

American: Jack feels ill at school today. He ate too much.

And see how it looks in six other regions:

England: Jack feels ill at school today. He’s eaten too much.

Germany: Jack faces sickness today from eating too much at school.

Greek:  Ill today at school, Jack. He eats plenty more than others.

Spanish: It is from eating too much at school that Jack feels unwell.

Arabic: Indeed Jack feels ill today at school. Ate he did too much.

Chinese: At school today Jack feel sick. He eat too much.

That last one sounds as if I’m mocking Chinese, but if you look up Chinese syntax, you’ll see that this reads close to proper when translated back into the native tongue. Technically, it should read “school-at,” but that would only get us back to the typical confusion when we starta writin’ weirdin’m’out linga. Dialect in your dialog should disappear like the rest of the prose, leaving nothing but the story in the reader’s heart.

Am I some pro at dialect? No, I’m an amateur, but I’m certain that my most recent short story rejection came because I over-complicated my dialect and so distracted my readers… who happened to be editors of a magazine I want on my writing credits. Hopefully the answers I unearthed will help your next stories and mine.

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