Dialogue is a Killer


      Dialogue is a killer.

     Stress the vernacular and local dialect too much, and you can leave a reader struggling to understand what the hell they just said.

     Make it too formal, and the reader will know they’re reading as they think, What? No one talks like that.

     Dialogue is a fine line, and while you can step over it here and there, you simply cannot walk all over it. There has to be a way to put your point across, and to keep your characters intact.

     I’m a New Englander. I know how we sound (hell, I know how I sound, and it’s a train-wreck). Some others out there in the whole wide world might know as well. We have our own curious statements, such as, “Down east,” and “ayuh.” We’re quite fond of sayings such as, “Passing strange,” and “you can’t get there from here,” or, “best to go back the way you come.” I can see Leominster, and know that it’s pronounced, “Lemon-stir.” And while it’s annoying to hear Harvard pronounced as “Hahvahd,” I know what someone means when they say it.

     Not everyone does.

     In fact, when you get down to the southern edge of Connecticut, you’ll hear more of a New York accent than you will a Boston. Out in the middle of the country, people talk slower than is polite (for a New Englander). Southerners and those from the West Coast are so relaxed, that when I first met some guys from those parts of the country, I thought they were all high they were so relaxed.

     The point of this long, and rambling little diatribe is this: we all know what we’re supposed to sound like, but more importantly, we all think we know what the rest of the country is supposed to sound like as well.

     If I say my character is from New Hampshire, and he or she speaks, a reader is going to imagine the nasally, clipped words of a New Englander who can’t seem to slow down enough for their own funeral. New Englanders, on the other hand, are going to imagine someone speaking exactly the way they should.

     If you have a character from Boston, you don’t need to write a line such as, “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd.”

     “Park the car in Harvard yard,” will work just fine. Everyone knows what folks from Boston like. Writing the dialogue in dialect or phonetically will break that suspension of disbelief that is so crucial to entertainment, and with the reader’s attention distracted, it will difficult to bring them back in.

     So, fight that urge to make the character believable by writing in dialect. Sure, you can drop a ‘g’ here or there. Adjust an apostrophe if you like. Just don’t mangle the English language. It gets abused enough as it is.

Keep writing!


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Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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