“Hey, didja eat yet?” “Naw, didju?” WriterDrome: Dialogue Part III

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

“Hey, didja eat yet?” “Naw, didju?”: Dialogue Part III 

“Hell, I was born here, an’ I was raished here, an’ dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin bushwackin, hornswaglin, cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter.”

 Gabby Johnson–Blazing Saddles.

 What?

Exactly. Fans of the film no doubt have this memorable quote in their arsenal, as it is one of those dialect phrases that is best spoken instead of read. I copied and pasted it right from the internet like that to prove a point. If Blazing Saddles was a novel instead of a movie, that line of dialogue would have been cut out, or at least severely edited before the book made it into print. Why? Because writing that line of dialogue in fiction is considered amateurish and unprofessional. 

Now, before a riot starts, I know exactly what you’re going to say. “But I read so-and-so’s book and he uses dialect written like that…why can’t I use it as well?” There are millions of examples of millions of writers breaking all the rules, all the time. The reasons for the rule breaking and the exception of those rules are legion, but that doesn’t mean you should break them as well. Remember that before your contract is inked up and signed, you are in a long list of writers hoping for a lucky break, and you need to follow the rules as much as you can. Let the amateurs fail to get the contract because their dialogue technique is terrible. 

Writing dialect is difficult because we are trying to incorporate how words sound into a form that can be read by anyone. We want these words to sound different because we want our characters speaking the words to be different. By deliberately placing these sounds into our readers heads, we are shaping how they experience the character. This is counterproductive to the way readers form their mental imagery of our characters. Dialect is characterization through dialogue, therefore you must follow the rule: Less is more. 

 “Hell, I was born here, and I was raised here. Damn, I’m going to die here too, and no sidewinding, bushwacking, hornswagling, cracker croaker is going to ruin my damn gutter.”

No misspelled words, no letters omitted, yet it still reads as authentic frontier gibberish because of the words I used. I cleaned up the bishen cutter part at the end because the consensus is the words mean gutter, and Gabby Johnson was just a poor frontier settler, living in the gutter, yet proud of Rock Ridge and ready to fight for it. The humor remains because I used words like hornswagling and cracker croaker, which give the lines some rhythm and tone. One cannot read those lines aloud without hearing the Old West, whether they’ve seen the film or not.  Remove the funny sounding words like hornswagling and cracker croaker and the entire tone of the line turns dark, almost menacing. 

Handling characters from non-English speaking countries is a little more difficult. Where before you were attempting to characterize a region or socioeconomic aspect of a character, now you’re attempting to characterize a foreign aspect through dialogue. It’s easy to fall into the trap of accenting the accent. 

 “I vould like to go to zee hotel.”

Unless you want all of your foreign characters to sound like a French Bela Lugosi, avoid this at all costs. Russian characters sound different from French characters, who sound different from Austrian characters, and so on. British characters speak English but don’t sound American. Same for Australian characters. 

 So how do we make them distinct? 

British characters seem easy because they speak English. The distinction is the British own the English language, something to keep in mind when using them as characters. The United Kingdom is huge, encompassing several countries. People from Great Britain speak differently from those of Ireland and Scotland. Even within those separate countries distinct dialects emerge, causing more confusion for the uninitiated. You could give your British, Irish or Scottish character a catch-phrase to use that sounds un-American–sounds simple enough–but be careful. Don’t just invent a catch phrase off the cuff, do some research. Read books written by British, Irish, and Scottish authors to get an idea how they get the dialect across. Find something that is short yet distinctive. As long as you don’t over use the phrase, it is an easy way to make sure your reader knows who is talking and that they are not American. Your British character may be a little older, been around the block a few times, and refers to good-looking women as ‘birds’. Incorporate that into his speech occasionally for a little distinction and diversity. When writing a British character, please make sure to not use words one would only hear in America. Again, research can help with authenticity. The character may be speaking English, but if they’re not American, that makes a major difference in the words they say. 

Characters from non-English speaking countries usually prove to be the most difficult. Nothing infuriates me more than reading a book full of foreign phrases and the author fails to provide me any clue to what the character was saying. Some people like this, say it lends a little more credibility to the character, makes it read more realistic. To each their own. I say, if you must use a foreign word or phrase, please clue me in on what it means, especially if you want me to keep on reading. My currently in-development-hell novel Blood Junkies uses such a phrase in German, and I manage to keep it’s meaning a secret until the end of Act I. Don’t think that I didn’t want to let the reader in on the secret sooner. It was difficult, but I knew it would be revealed later, so I made it’s meaning part of the story, so at least the reader knew I would eventually let them in on the secret, which made it a little more mysterious. If the word or phrase is not central to the plot, then by all means tell the reader what it means as soon as possible. 

Foreign characters speaking English as a second language can be tricky. If the character is well-educated and has mastered the English language, you may be able to solve this problem by simply giving them a foreign name and keeping their language as well spoken and educated as possible. It may be crude and simple, but actually works quite well. When faced with a character who may not be so educated, incorporating that into their dialogue can prove to be a challenge. Remember, less is more. Listen to people when they speak, especially if English is their second language. You will hear patterns in the way they arrange their words. Often foreign people mix up the order of their words, or use elementary words in place of more sophisticated words, when speaking English.

 “I see you hold your purse close to the body, like a little shivering doggie. Maybe it is you who is shivering?”

Written in plain English, this example quickly shows the reader that the speaker has learned English as a second language. The word doggie is the give away. When is the last time you heard an English-speaking adult use that word? How did this speaker learn English? He may have taken an actual class, which teaches foreigners how to read and write and speak much like how we teach our children in English-speaking countries to read and write and speak, starting at an elementary level and working up. 

 “Holding your purse close, like a shivering pup. Maybe you’re the one who’s shivering, little bird.”

That could have been spoken by a British character. In this case, the distinction should be clarified sooner, without dialogue, that way when this character does speak, the reader knows the person speaking is speaking English, yet not American. You cannot rely on dialect and dialogue alone to characterize the people in your story. British writers surely have the same problems writing American characters. The language is the same, so they have to listen to the way American’s put their sentences together, the words they use and the order they use them. 

Quite a few writing instructors and editors preach about not using profanity and swearing in your story, especially your dialogue. They say people don’t really talk that way. I say phooey on that. More people from all walks of life use more profanity and swear words today than ever before. They say if you overuse profanity and swear words, those words lose their impact when you do use them, and I tend to agree with that to some extent. Make the words fit the character. You may want to have a character in your story never cuss or swear at all. Imagine the impact of the use of a single swear word when it’s the only one in the whole fucking story. 

If you take the time to think about the character, what they are saying, and how they are saying it, there’s no reason for them to be all Americans, all speaking the same way, or all French, or British, or whatever. Use the words they say and how they say them as a tool to characterize your story people, and only use those words to advance the plot of the story. Remember, if your dialogue is not advancing the plot of the story, then you’re slowing the story down to a halt, and when that happens, your reader halts as well. 

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