Using Slang and Accents When Writing Fictional Dialogue

See Also: 12 Exercises for Improving Dialog

Article by Todd Eastman

The FBI agent stumbled into the living room, only to find himself face to face with an old woman in a rocking chair. The old woman spit into an rusty coffee can sitting next to her on the floor, then used her bony, arthritic finger to point.

“The killer you be lookin’ fer is right down that there hall.”

Many writers find dialogue to be one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction. Trying to include regional accents and speech patterns and doing it incorrectly can ruin your story. On the other hand, doing it correctly can make the story seem even more authentic. There are several things you need to be careful of when using this technique in your dialogue.

  1. Be careful not to suggest racism in the way you write, unless that is part of the story itself. Not everyone from the South uses “Y’all”, not every African American uses vulgar words, and not every Mexican is a gang member. Be aware when you are using stereotypes.
  2. If you are going to use regional speech patterns and accents, make sure you do it accurately and consistently. If your character has been speaking with a heavy southern drawl and suddenly sounds like he is from Boston, your readers are going to notice.
  3. Done correctly, using speech patterns and accents can be very effective in fleshing out your character. In R.A. Salvatore’s fantasy series about Drizzt the Black Elf, Salvatore introduces a character named Catti-brie, a human girl who was adopted as a young child by a clan of dwarves and is raised by them. Salvatore’s use of an Irish-like brogue works well for the dwarves, and allows Catti-brie to express herself in a manner not always possible in plain English. (Although, I always wonder why dwarves have these Irish/Scottish like brogues.) But if every race in Salvatore’s stories had different accents and speech patterns, it would become overwhelming and too cumbersome to keep up with.
  4. If you are going to use accents and speech patterns, make sure you make it sound authentic. If possible, sit with or near a group or person that falls into whatever background you are studying, and listen carefully to their speech patterns, accents, and terminology. Even better, get them to converse with you and ask if you can record the conversation, explaining of course that you are doing background research for your best selling novel.
  5. Along with accents and speech patterns, you have to consider terminology. If your mountain bike-riding friend suggests you “bomb” to the other side of the hill, you better know what you are agreeing to.

One of the best references I have found for locating and defining slang words is Luc Reid’s book, “Talk the Talk – The Slang of 65 American Subcultures.” There are far more than 65 American Subcultures of course, but knowing how and when to use some of these words can give your story that sound of authenticity you are looking for.

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Todd Eastman is a threelancer. He freelances as a writer, graphic artist, and web designer You can read his very opinionated blog at http://www.eastman-writing.com

13 thoughts on “Using Slang and Accents When Writing Fictional Dialogue

  1. Todd, you provide excellent advice for using slang and accent in fictional writing. I am pretty shy about using dialect–I don’t have as a good an ear for picking up dialect as do other writers–but I have tried to use accent to help flesh out a character. I think a little bit of accent can go a long way to defining a character whereas laying it on too thick can, as you point out, overwhelm a reader. I have the same hesitation in using slang unless I’m armed with proof that I’m using it correctly. I admire writers that use slang, dialect, and accent appropriately; it can truly enhance a story. Thanks for the reference, too!
    Cheers,
    Marie

  2. Todd,
    Using slang and dialects poorly can ruin a book. I quit reading a historical novel because the dialogue was filled with modern-day slang that jarred me out of the time period of the story and made me wonder where in the world that came from. Thanks for your excellent advice on this important subject.

  3. Todd, great advice on how to integrate accents, speech patterns, and slang in one’s stories and what pitfalls to avoid like the plague. I recently edited a book with West Coast (U.S.) slang in it, and I’ll admit I stumbled over some of the diction and accents used, until I became more comfortable with them. However, as a former linguistics student, I am fascinated by accents and language (etymology, phonology, etc.) in general.

    In addition to the book you mention, which I have not read, you can turn to the masters of varying accents (well, masters in my humble opinion): Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and so on.

    Also, chances are, (as you hint) you’re a member of at least one subculture–whether it be photography, Northeasterners, medical transcriptionists, Buddhist, or whatnot–that you can mine jargon and dialog from for your stories and novels.

    Best of luck with your “threelancing,” Todd! I’m looking forward to checking out your blog.

  4. A writer in my writers’ group starting submitting a new novel a few months back, and a recurring (but not main) character is Slovakian. To drive home the point, the writer forces a harsh accent on almost every single word that character speaks. It is incredibly difficult to read, and everyone in the group has told him these parts of the book’s dialog need to change. He has refused to make any changes because “That’s the way Slovakian people speak.”

    We tried to compromise with him and asked him to only accent some important words in the sentences, but he seems compelled to accent everything even though it makes for a poor reading experience.

    This article was mainly about making sure you get your accents and slang correct, but what about the overuse of accents in a character? Where is a good middle ground to show the speech patterns, but not to destroy the reader’s ability to easily glide through the conversations?

    Thoughts? Ideas?

  5. Thanks for the additional references. I’ll have to check them out.

    Leigh – I think you are right about all the writers you mentioned as good examples of writers who can pull this off. To me, Mark Twain epitomizes the perfect slang writer. His characters come alive without leaving the reader scratching their head.

    J.T. – I’ve read writing like that as well. It sounds like the writer has fallen into the stereotyping trap. Sure, the Slovakian accent may sound harsh and guttural, but that doesn’t mean the dialog has to be written that way. A hint of an accent goes much further than banging the reader over the head with it.

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone!

    Todd

    Todd Eastmans last blog post..Getting Paid to Write!

  6. Todd,

    This is wonderful advice for any writer of fiction who wants to use realistic-sounding regional accents. I’m sure that many will find your advice helpful. As J.T. mentions in the comment above, it’s so easy to lose one’s audience through heavy-handed use of accents–making it a chore to read a piece–and it really takes a deft touch to do the job well. Your advice should make it easier for writers to find that touch.

    Thanks for an enlightening post!
    Jeanne

  7. Thank you again for your linguistic contribution to my guest blogger month, Todd. Good luck with your writing.

  8. Slangs are some words which adds new color to our life and using slang and accents when writing fictional dialogue is one of the best method. I would like to recommend a new slang dictionary Delight yourself by browsing through this and learn how colloquial expressions make the vernacular vocabulary of any language more colorful.

  9. Please, please, please. NOONE from the south uses ya’ll. The contracted form of you all is y’all. I don’t know where this ya’ll spelling comes from but it is horrific.

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