Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dialogue 101: Secrets to Writing Accents, Part Two

So before a rather long hiatus, I had posted part one of Secrets to Writing Accents, in which we covered ways to research accents before writing them into a story. Of course, I had promised to post part two the next week, and obviously that didn't happen, my apologies!

Without further ado, here is part two!

Today, we look at just how much brogue/twang/drawl/slang to allow in your paragraphs.

Have you ever read a book where you couldn't understand a thing a character said because the author wrote too much of their accent into their dialogue? Did your eyes trip over the apostrophes and deliberate misspellings and unexplained colloquialisms? You probably answered yes.

Since, as writers, we want to write books that we would want to read, let's keep that incident in mind and write just enough accent in our dialogue to get it across, without sending your readers sprawling in confusion over dialect. Remember: your readers shouldn't ever have to pause or look back on the last paragraph to make sense of something in your story, especially dialogue.

That being the case, handle accents incrementally. But what does that mean?

Well, first, consider your POV character. If the characters in a scene are all from the same region as she is, she won't notice their accents. However, if she's a New Yorker and the man she just met and is talking to is a Texan, she's likely to notice his accent is different. But if she's known this Texan for a while, his accent will become less noticeable to her over time, with the exception of the occasional colloquialism. Considering this, write his dialogue according to her POV.

This applies not only to first person POV but even third person, unless omniscient third. I say this out of experience. When I was writing my Celtic Urban Fantasy The Shards of Tara, my South Carolinian main character Sean was thrown into a situation where he was the lone American with a troop of Irish and a few Scots, who continue as supporting characters throughout the series. At first, Sean felt bombarded by their accents, and I allowed their dialect to be prominent in their conversation (insofar as it wasn't strangling the prose!), but as the story progressed and Sean got used to their lilts, I turned down the dialectical writing to a minimum. Had someone picked the book up and read a passage towards the end, they might not know these characters were Irish and Scottish except for their word choice, as opposed to dialectical writing.

For the sake of visual example, here's two quotes from the aforementioned MS, both spoken by the same Scottish character. The first one is upon Sean's introduction to him, and the second, later on when they're known each other for a few months.

1. “Don’t you fret, I’m in the cercle, ye might say. Yer leprechaun friend, Bran, I know him. Once ye finish here with Lady Scathach, ye’ll be coming with me. But not another word to the lads, yeah?” 

2. "Something drastic will happen and change their minds for you, you know? It's pathetically convenient how that happens with conflicts here."

In another WIP of mine (this one co-authored), in a reverse of the situation above, the MC Ruby is a Londoner. When she falls in with Americans, she has to adjust to their own varied accents in the same way, especially as a fighter pilot and talking over radio systems to them.

The point of this incremental method is just a small way to achieve deeper POV, whether in first or third person, and also to keep your readers from having to look twice at dialectical writing.

At the same time, though, accents can be used for comic relief. One of my favorite scenes in War and Peace was when the Russian soldiers transporting French prisoners allowed some of the French to join them around their campfire. Since the French soldiers couldn't handle even a little of the Russians' vodka, the Russians  had some fun and had the French sing Russian folk songs. Of course, the French botched the Russian pronunciation, much to the soldiers' (and my own) amusement. Tolstoy often uses accents as comic relief, between Napoleon's own pompous mispronunciations to Denisov's lisp.

Accents, like all writing tools, should be used cleverly and with moderation. What accents and dialects are featured in your stories?

1 comment:

  1. As someone for whom English isn't a first language, I would put even more emphasis on "don't overdo the accents". It can be doubly difficult to decipher for someone who has trouble deciphering the proper pronunciation of English spelling to begin with, and has just as little idea what the accent is as what the POV default itself would be! More important in internet publishing, I guess, but since this is on the internet, I think it's necessary to point out.

    I think you could also use Tolkien as an excellent example of how to do this well and make it easier for foreign readers - he doesn't so much use accents as he does various dialectical words, word order etc, to get the point across. Of course, that's made easier by the fact he's working in a made-up world; but what I mean here is, people familiar with English accents will easily put one in, and those who mostly know English from reading aren't excluded from enjoying it and still seeing the difference in speech.