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Chip MacGregor

December 20, 2016

Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 6 (Accents and Dialect)

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brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-and-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time…

 

The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the African-American servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong Southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong Southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong Southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

 

Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more obvious than if she were writing for adults who had a better idea what a late-1800’s Southern accent sounded like, and because Mandie’s clothes were pretty, but I’ve read too many manuscripts were the author didn’t have Ms. Leppard’s excuses and in which an overdone dialect or written-in accent completely overpowered what was actually being said in the dialogue. An author can convey a character’s style of speaking or an accent without using every cliche specific to that regional dialect or writing out every word phonetically by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

 

  • Use phonetic spellings sparingly. Ending just the occasional “-ing” word with an apostrophe will suffice to put that “darlin'” southern drawl in a reader’s ear, and will ensure that the reader does most of the work of “translating” that character’s speech into the right voice and accent.
  • Use regional vocabulary sparingly. There’s a big difference between how a British person actually talks and the American idea of how we THINK he talks– I once read a manuscript in which the dreamy main character from England spoke like the Monty Python caricature version of a British aristocrat– “What ho,” “right-o,” “spiffing,” and “cheerio” were sprinkled liberally through his dialogue, and made it impossible to take him seriously as a romantic lead. Don’t write in cliches; do your research, listen to or watch as much dialogue spoken by actual Irish or South African or Bostonian or New Jersey speakers as you can, and then let a few well-placed terms or words set the tone for the majority of the dialogue.
  • Describe a speaker’s style of speaking. Though it’s certainly possible to overdo this one, it’s perfectly legitimate to describe a speaker’s voice or style of speaking a little when he or she is first introduced. If you tell the reader that a character spoke “with a curious lilt to some of her words, and he remembered that she had lived the first half of her life in Ireland,” it lets the reader fill in this blank for himself without your messing with the spelling of any dialogue or throwing in conspicuous Irish slang just to make sure they know that this character’s speech sounds a little different.

 

If you’ve written a character who speaks with an accent or in a regional dialect, make a point of asking your beta readers how well you conveyed that style of speaking, and whether they were ever distracted by phonetic spelling or obviously regional slang. And if you write for children, I hope your work will be enjoyed half as much as I enjoyed reading those Mandie books from 1992-1994, overdone accents notwithstanding. Thanks, Lois Gladys, for inspiring today’s post, and for being my first “favorite author.”

 

This will be the last post in my series on dialogue; if you have any lingering questions or issues you wish I’d address, please leave a comment and let me know — I’m happy to extend my farewell tour if it turns out there’s more to say on the subject. Thanks for reading, and merry Christmas! Chip will be back to his regular blogging soon!

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13 Comments

  • Mike Sheehan says:

    Only 29 and such a font of wisdom when it comes to writing dialogue. Excellent series with the right amount of humor and funny examples to keep this reader’s attention, limited as it is.

    Have a Merry Christmas and a 2017 filled with great manuscripts.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      (Not to make it a big deal or anything, but word on the street is Erin just passed the big three-zero…)

  • Burton Voss says:

    Hi Erin. I’ve enjoyed your articles and if you’re willing to stick around, would you talk more about deep POV vs. internal dialog, when to use them and always hit the attribution button.
    You’re doing great. Thanks.
    Burton

  • Aubrey Shepherd says:

    If this is your farewell tour with Chip, will you be showing up on another blog someplace? I love your words and will miss them dearly!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I was just taking a break for a while, Aubrey. Back on the blog today! (And isn’t Erin wonderful?)

  • David Rawlings - Author says:

    Hi Chip! Thanks for the post (and the rest of your agency’s posts on dialogue as well!) I genuinely appreciated your point on regional vocabulary. As an Australian, I’ve had to get my head around speaking “American” first (as opposed to my British-based Aussie spelling and grammar) and then determine whether or not my characters will have a Nashville twang or hard Bostonian vowels. What is your view on *not* being overly specific about dialect? Does that make your characters more accessible or less filled out?

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I read the first two Mandie books (and much more recently than you). Yes, the dialogue was overdone and irritated me. Not being from the south, I wondered if it was realistic or a bad stereotype. Despite my issues with the dialogue, I did enjoy the books (for light reading) and a as pleasing prelude to watching the Mandie movies.

  • Phyllis Wheeler says:

    Here’s what I am wondering. I have a POV character who speaks with an African-American Southern accent. Should the character’s thoughts be relayed in something suggesting that accent? Normal English sounds a little odd to me for her.

  • Laura Droege says:

    Thanks for the post, Erin. I, too, read the Mandie books. I remember her being young, far too young to marry, and yet she had not one, but TWO boys who wanted to marry her (and they were serious about it!). It struck me as ridiculous even as a young girl and I quit reading them.

    I wanted to add one thing about regional accents. Not all people in a region will speak the same. For example, I’m from Alabama. Outsiders seem to think that all Southerners have a drawl, etc., but that’s not true. The North Alabama region (where I live) has many transplants from other areas of the country and other countries, and they definitely don’t speak with a drawl. In addition, many people in Huntsville are extremely well educated and don’t use the word “ain’t”, etc. We don’t speak like Forrest Gump, either, or drink sweet tea or drive a pickup truck with a gun rack and a Confederate flag in the back window.

    Personally, I’ve grown up in the south, but I’m not particularly “southern” in my attitudes because my parents were not from the south. So it’s important to remember that not everyone in a region (even natives) will use the same speech patterns. I’ve read books where the authors seem to view all people from Alabama (or the south) as all alike, so I’m probably a little sensitive about it. 🙂

  • Peggotty says:

    Yeah, I think someone tagged me on this issue once. 😉 Kathryn Stockett did an excellent portrayal of her Southerners in The Help without twisting our ears.
    On a different tack regarding dialogue, I’ve found that listening to a movie with great dialogue, without watching, is a good way to hear the way characters talk naturally.
    Thanks for the great insights, Erin. And, yes, all the years volunteering in a grade school library well acquainted me with Mandie. They were the ones with the dog-eared corners and popsicle stains. My daughter, Emily read them as well. Mandie enjoyed international excursions with an aunt(?), as I recall.

  • Rod M says:

    I admire how Toni Morrison uses syntax and word choice to convey dialect without resorting to phonetic spellings in this excerpt from The Bluest Eye:

    “The onliest time I be happy seem like was when I was in the
    picture show. Every time I got, I went. I’d go early, before the show started.
    They’d cut off the lights, and everything be black. Then the screen would light
    up, and I’d move right on in them pictures. White men taking such good care of
    they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses with the bathtubs right
    in the same room with the toilet. Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure, but
    it made coming home hard, and looking at Cholly hard.” (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye)

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