Dialogue (or avin’ a natter)

Dialogue in stories, be they long or short, is always important. The words we use either repel the reader or draw them in. If the dialogue is weak then the story suffers.

I’ve read a number of books in my lifetime that have both good and bad dialogue. Some of it is just plain bad for no other reason that it feels unnatural. You just couldn’t imagine anyone saying that. These are the stories where you’re quite happy reading along until all of a sudden you’re dumped back out into the real word all because a character spouts some inane rubbish.

A lot of this really depends upon personal preference. Some people hate fantasy stories that contain modern-day profanity or use modern terminology. I myself get picky about things like this, even to the point where I cringe upon seeing the words ‘just a second’ being used.

The point of this post, however, is not about such words and their ‘misuse’. It is instead focused upon the construction of dialogue. Some of the best books I’ve read make use of dialect in their dialogue. I love this.

Why? Well, for me, I feel it gives a deeper appreciation of the character. There are nuances in regional language that draw me into the personality of the speaker. By giving the character a voice of their own allows the writer to think beyond the everyday dialogue that they are accustomed to and draw upon cultural difference. This, in my opinion, is greatly underestimated when writing dialogue, especially in a fantasy setting.

This is, of course, a ‘Marmite’ situation. You either love it or you hate it. I know that some readers truly hate dialect appearing in their books. They often state that it makes a book frustrating or difficult to read. Some will not even go near a book known to contain dialect.

I can appreciate this. If you are coming from another English-speaking country, dialects and words that you are unfamiliar with can sometimes jolt you out of a story or even make you give up on a book entirely. This can be especially true for those readers whose first language is not English.

In some cases, even a slight difference in words can cause readers to second-guess a book. J.K. Rowling’s first “Harry Potter” book had the original title changed from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for the North American market. A small change, but one that the publishers thought crucial for sales. It is interesting to note, however, that the popularity of the UK release meant that a lot of US readers bought the British version before it hit US shelves. As such, US readers grew ‘accustomed’ to the little differences which suggested the changes made were unnecessary.

Obviously, this was a simple wording change. What I’m talking about is actual dialogue. For instance, take a look at this brief excerpt from one of my own (unreleased) works.

“I said…”
“Ah ken whit ye said.”
“More’s the pity.”
“Well, if you couldn’t speak then maybe some of us could get some sleep without all your grunting and shouting.”
“Ah didnae…”
“I think I speak for all of us when I say that you were.”
“Now jist ye haud on…”
“You see? There you go again. The inability to lower ones voice suggests a distinct lack of intelligence and poor breeding.”
“Did ye jist insult ma Ma?”
“Oh, I think you’re doing a grand job of that all by yourself.”

It could also read like this:

“I said…”
“I know what you said.”
“More’s the pity.”
“Well, if you didn’t speak then maybe some of us could get some sleep without all your grunting and shouting.”
“I didn’t…”
“I think I speak for all of us when I say that you were.”
“Now just you hold on…”
“You see? There you go again. The inability to lower ones voice suggests a distinct lack of intelligence and poor breeding.”
“Did you just insult my Mother?”
“Oh, I think you’re doing a far better job of that all by yourself.”

One of my favourite authors, R.L. Stevenson, wrote a great short story entitled, “Thrawn Janet”. It’s a classic ghost story and if you have not read it then I urge to do so (but not the abridged version). It’s not for the fainthearted and by that I refer to the style. Here is an example from the aforementioned story (from Classic Reader):

Weel, it wad appear that, when he askit that, she gave a girn that fairly frichtit them that saw her, an’ they could hear her teeth play dirl thegether in her chafts; but there was naething for it but the ae way or the ither; an’ Janet lifted up her hand and renounced the deil before them a’.

“And now,” says Mr. Soulis to the guidwives, “home with ye, one and all, and pray to God for His forgiveness.”

And he gied Janet his arm, though she had little on her but a sark, and took her up the clachan to her ain door like a leddy of the land, an’ her scrieghin’ and laughin’ as was a scandal to be heard.

Difficult? Almost the entire story is written in dialect. It was an interesting decision and gives the story real atmosphere. I liked it and although the very first time I read through the story I was puzzled by some of the words, I think the story would lose a great deal if it was altered.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should write in dialect like Stevenson did with “Thrawn Janet”, but I do advocate the use of it in dialogue. Too much of a good thing, however, is never good and it is always important when using dialect to do so sparingly.

There will always be some language purists out there that might pick holes in any dialect, whether from missed phrases or wrongly worded sentences, but the point is to use enough so as to convey a sense of familiarity to the reader. In a modern-day setting you could refer to someone as coming from Newcastle, Chicago, or Moscow and the reader will immediately create a mental impression of what the character sounds like without you having to spend much time developing that. Doing the same thing with a character from a fantasy novel and it becomes harder to make reference to a familiar place. Of course, you could allude to possible accents from similarities based upon your fictional culture or you could just ignore it altogether and simply wait for someone to make a film/tv series about your book. At least then you will be able to make suggestions and pick the accents that you feel fit your characters (unless your film stars Kevin Costner).

What about character thoughts? Personally, I write thoughts in a neutral accent. It helps when switching between thoughts and dialogue during a conversation, but also helps to develop a character’s personality. For example, I have recently written a character that speaks in a rough manner with language that befits the company he keeps. His thoughts, however, are quite eloquent and deep. The shift between dialect and thoughts help establish the character.

The samples I’ve given above largely make use of Scots dialect, but there are others that I’ve used at different times. Amongst them have been Welsh, French, German, Geordie, Lancashire, and Cockney. Sometimes, it is just the odd word here and there that can trigger association with a particular region/country rather than filling a complete sentence with dialect.

One of the best ways I’ve found of picking up the different nuances in language is from watching dialect-specific TV shows that, in part, use language to drive the drama/humour. The three that I mention here are already well-known to British audiences, but are recommended for anyone looking for sounds and phrases (btw, they are older TV series and all are comedy-themed).

1) Rab C. Nesbitt (Glaswegian)

2) Only Fools and Horses (south-east London with cockney)

3) Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (different accents, such as brummie, scouse, Welsh, although chiefly Geordie)

There are others of course, but these were three of my favourites. It’s also a great way of watching TV without punishing yourself for not writing. You’re doing research ;)

So, how about you? Do you love stories that contain dialect? Does it make you smile when you see words/phrases from your own region? Perhaps you absolutely loathe stories with dialect and hate having to wade through a text bogged down with the stuff. What about you writers out there? Do you use dialect or avoid it like the plague?

I’d like to know.



13 thoughts on “Dialogue (or avin’ a natter)

  1. I love stories that use dialect. As you say, they make the story – and especially the character – deeper.

    Difficult to read? Yes, especially for me, being a non-native English speaker, but I always enjoy it.
    The book that was most difficult to me was Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is completely written in a Southern US dialoect. I nearly dropped it at the beginning, so hard it was on me. But then I got used to the dialect and in the end I read it without any problem.

    I read Thrawn Janet… in Italian :-( (hey, Stevenson is one of my favourite authors too!)
    There was a note in the Italian version, where the language shifted, that informed from that point on the story was written in Scot. I nearly stopped reading, because I though I wasn’t really reading that story. But it was Stevenson, so of course I read it to the end :-)

    I’m very sorry my muster of Englsih isn’t enough to use dialect. I would have liked to use it in mys tory to, to build character. Well… it is as it is :-)

    PS: Hey, you’ve changed the looks of your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I think you do exceptionally well considering English is not your native tongue. What stands out is the fact that your blog and the books that you have written are in English. That is an incredible achievement.

      Actually, I’ve been curious as to why you chose to write in English instead of Italian? I often think that it would be easier to first get a foothold in another country rather than attempt to navigate the ocean that is the English-speaking market. You frequently hear of Scandinavian and Japanese authors that have their work translated into English after becoming popular in their native country.

      In fact, you have an advantage over non-bilingual (or are you multilingual?) writers in that you could quite easily approach different markets. That is a very powerful tool to have as an author. For instance, French and Italian is very popular in Japan, more so than English in some instances. If I was able to write in either language anywhere near as good as I can English (which might not be saying much considering the rejections I have), I’d be focusing on other markets too.

      PS. You have a good eye ;) The closer I get to finishing “Glade” the more changes I will make…


      1. I actually wrote in Italian for many many years, I partecipated in contests, I was even published a a few anthologies… before I realised this would take me nowhere.
        If the English-speaking market is tough, the Italian market is impossible, unless you are a star of any kind. Foodball players are more likely to publish a book than a beginner.
        Add to this that fantasy (the genre I’ve alway written is) has never been popular in Italy. It has always been consider a kids’ genre.
        And finally, the Italian writing community isn’t anywhere as professional as the English-speaking one. Here in Italy most people still think a writer is an artist and art comes naturally, you can’t learn it. Which is true, of course, but I do think you can learn craft.

        So, some twenty years ago, I decided that, tough as it was surely going to be, the English-speaking market would have at least given me a possibility the Italian market was never going to gave me.

        Today, I’m not even sure I’d still be able to write fiction in Italian…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s quite sad, Sarah.

        Still, perhaps it will be your strength of character and determination to succeed in the English market that will change the face of Italian literature.

        Here’s to the next 20 years and all that you might accomplish! :)


  2. I love the use of dialect, but some are really hard for me to follow, like the example you wrote out above. Give me an American dialect, like any of the ones available in the Deep South, and I’ll have no trouble deciphering them, but give me Irish or Scottish or uncommon styles from Britain and the UK, and I won’t know what’s being said.

    In fantasy, I like to see some dialect. I like seeing that not every character speaks the same, or uses the same vocabulary. I include dialect (slight, oh so slight) in one of my more gritty stories (where I think dialect works the best for most audiences!) and it’s added such a richness to the various regions that I don’t think I could do without them.

    I think ‘use sparingly’ is definitely the key. I’m sure there’s a happy medium between “Nandayo!” (Japanese), “What are you saying?” (direct English), and “Say wha’!” ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, Alex!

      I’ve read a couple of stories with American dialects in them and found myself Googling a few words. I only did that if I liked the story I was reading, but for those that I did, I found myself having a new appreciation for the writer. In some ways though, with the number of American films and TV shows that are available, the dialects become better known than say British or Irish ones, which might not get screened in the US because of a fear that no one will understand what they’re on about.

      For the life of me, I just can’t seem to think of a film at this moment other than “Trainspotting”.

      I think it is one of the reasons that I enjoy period dramas so much. The dialogue and accents are superb. Off the top of my head, I would recommend the 3-part BBC production of “Jamaica Inn”. Brilliantly performed. If you haven’t seen it then I recommend that you do. The more obvious one is perhaps the recent remake of “Poldark”. Great acting and well performed dialects.

      While it does depend upon the story, I think dialect is great when dealing with groups of characters where dialogue can grow unwieldily and confusing. Companions sat around a table in a pub might have a wonderful conversation, but it becomes so much more real when you have accents. It can even add light moments to an otherwise grim setting without ruining the tone. It’s also a great tool for adding isolation to a character who has arrived in a strange place/city.

      Although not a popular film, “The Thirteenth Warrior” (which I liked a lot), did a great job of handling language. I liked how they made the main character slowly begin to understand the language during the journey north. It would have been easy to just pass it off, but they didn’t.

      Anyway, I’m rambling now so I’ll just shuffle off ;)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha. We really must have a lot in common. I loved the Thirteenth Warrior, too!!! Oh, if learning a new language at that age was only so easy! ;)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha. Indeed we must. I too look forward to seeing how much we have in common! :)

        Of course, should you also happen to like Neil Jordan’s, “A Company of Wolves”; Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”, and Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples”… we might very well see the planets align, the sea turn red, and the first seal of the Apocalypse shatter… ;)


  3. I think the use of dialect can enrich the story. It can also make it darn near impossible to read. I think it depends on how much is used. I prefer to have the speech spiced with the dialect rather doused with it like some tend to wear perfume.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers for that, Keira! :) The sample was some dialogue which I ended up cutting from a scene in “Glade”. It’s nice to know that you liked it. That gives me hope that the character in question might appeal to someone other than myself ;)


Be brave... leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s