Please welcome guest author Alyssa Hollingsworth with tips on writing dialect.
I’ll be honest: I’ve always been terrified of dialect because it’s easy to get wrong. But when done well, it can make a story shine.
When you’re writing in first person, it is important to consider who your narrator is and how she or he speaks (or writes, as the case may be). This is important whether you’re writing contemporary, historical, or fantasy fiction.
When I found myself blundering into a story with a first-person narrator who was from backcountry, I knew I needed to clock hours on the dialect. There are a lot of helpful posts about how dialect should or shouldn’t be done, which can be found on Daily Writing Tips, The Editor’s Blog, or Writer’s Digest.
Before we begin, there’s an important distinction to be made between dialect and accent. Here’s the official definition from the British Library:
A dialect is a specific variety of English that differs from other varieties in three specific ways: lexis (vocabulary), grammar (structure) and phonology (pronunciation or accent).
Accent, on the other hand, refers only to differences in the sound patterns of a specific dialect.
With that in mind, below are some practical steps you can take to equip yourself for writing dialect.
Brainstorm or Research Regional Turns of Phrase
Place and environment often have a big impact on the development of people and language. The first thing I did was made a list of things that would influence this environment. For my fantasy world, these were mostly forests, woods, and farmland.
I tried to think about environmental ways to express happiness, sadness, and anger. How would a woodsman swear? What words from his surroundings would he use to express himself?
This works across environments — whether your characters are seafaring pirates or overcrowded city dwellers, you can use the setting to influence the language.
When you’re relying on a real dialect, do some research and make lists of interesting words commonly used.
Listen and Take Notes
Listen to Real People
If you’re fortunate enough to live near people who speak in the dialect you want to write, spend a lot of time with them or eavesdrop at a coffee shop. But if you’re not near your desired dialect, take to YouTube or to language resource websites.
For those looking for a UK accent, the British Library has an entire archive for accents and dialects that I found invaluable. They also have this useful map for locating regional variations.
Listen to Celebrities
After listening to locals, sometimes you might find yourself growing used to a strong accent. It helps to then turn to celebrities and celebrity interviews. Their accents and dialects are often much lighter than the common folk you’ve been spending time with, and it’s useful to keep the range of the language in mind while you’re writing.
Listen to Audiobooks
Find one or two audiobooks that are read in the accent you’re working with. It can be helpful to pick a reader who’s the same gender as your protagonist or find books written by local authors in the dialect you’re researching. Listen to a chapter or so before you sit down to your own project; this will help get your head in the voice.
Whichever way you choose to listen, make sure you take notes. Whenever you come across words that are interesting or unique (like “I’m bladdered” for “I’m drunk”), make a note of it. Listen for sentence structure differences or little tacked-on phrases. Especially pay attention to how verbs are used — often there are some hallmark ticks in verbs. You can use these in your writing.
If Appropriate, Do an Accent Lesson
Beyond taking notes, part of the point of listening so much is to help you internalize the language. Even if you will not be writing out the accent (see the links above for reasons why you might not want to), it’s good if you can clearly hear — and even speak — the accent. This helps you hear your character’s voice and can make it easier to fall into the dialect.
I found Access Accents (on Audible and iTunes) extremely helpful for this. These voice lessons are normally under an hour long and consist of people chatting about the accent and how to do it.
Write Your Character Describing Something
You don’t have to wait until you’re fluent in dialect to start writing, because part of learning the character’s voice will be writing it out.
One of the most helpful exercises is to write your character describing something, such as an event or a scene. Sometimes it helps to draft this in a heavy accent before you go back and edit it. But ultimately, you should challenge yourself to write with no accent, and instead use only grammar and unique phrases to create a distinct voice.
Here are a few prompts for things your character can describe:
- A familiar place she or he loves
- A place she or he has never been
- A childhood memory
- A traumatic event
- A loved one
- An enemy
Read Aloud and Revise
Finally, it’s time to read what you’ve written aloud. Keep a pen handy and mark any places where you stumble. Normally there’s a reason, and you might have to give up a few of your favorite phrases for the sake of clarity.
It’s also important to let native dialect speakers read the material. Since they won’t know your characters as well as you do, they can offer valuable advice about how the dialect is coming and whether or not it’s comprehensible.
At the end, you’ll have a beautifully narrated piece that perfectly complements your story.
About the Author: Alyssa Hollingsworth was born in small-town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her BA in English and Creative Writing from Berry College and her MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She has been previously published in Lunch Ticket, Berry Magazine and Letter to an Unknown Soldier. She regularly writes about the writing process on her blog.
You are a genius – thank you so much for putting this one up! I’m halfway through my very first novel, and a few characters have a very distinct accent.. it seemed easy to write at first, but it turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought. This entry and the link to the British Library have been very, very helpful – thanks! 😀
Kind regards, Isobel
You’re welcome, Isobel. Alyssa’s tips are immensely helpful to any writer who wants to incorporate accent or dialect into a written work. Good luck with your novel!
I’m currently working on a story about a person from the west part of the U.S. living in the southern part. My main character will be around ‘people from the hills’ where the dialect can get dreadful. I read somewhere that a writer doesn’t necessarily have to write the dialogue to reflect the dialect. In fact, what I read said that the dialect and/or accent should be explained but continue to write grammarically correct and use the right spelling on every word. Which way is better? Using the dialect gives the story the spice that keeps the reader interested, but it can be difficult to read in the first place.
Yes, I have seen writing where a dialect is implied. So instead of using misspellings and strange punctuation to reflect the way the characters speak, certain words from that dialect are peppered throughout the dialogue, which gives it the right flavor. You might try that. I do think it results in clearer prose that is easier to read.