Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Dialog defense

When I first started writing "seriously," my Dad asked to read my story. Since I didn't know what I was doing, I was happy to get another opinion. Two things he pointed out to me that stuck - one was "reverend." He told me it was an adjective (I was pretty excited to point out to my father who knew EVERYTHING that it can also be used as a noun), and grammar in dialog--there were very few things I was able to teach my father.

In fiction, perfect grammar goes out the window. Yes, you need to have "good" grammar (assuming your character should speak well), but it's more casual. More contractions. And when it comes to dialog, the characters need to speak naturally. Not in stilted "perfect" English. I don't speak perfect English, do you? 

One of my critique partners used to be a teacher, and when my Midwestern-ness comes through in my writing, she's right there to point it out to me. Likewise, another of my critique partners often points out certain things but includes a disclaimer that says "perhaps dialog defense, but..."

What are some examples? If you've ever read a book by @KristanHiggins, you'll note that she often includes "wicked" as an adjective. She's from New England where that word is frequently used, i.e., "Wicked good." Those not familiar with different American dialects might wonder at the usage, but as it isn't overdone, it becomes a character trait.

What are some of those Midwestern-isms? When you invite someone to accompany you, you'll ask "do you want to come with?" (those ending prepositions get us every time). Or there's "Ope." This is similar to "oops." And do you drink soda, or do you drink pop? I have to admit when I have my characters drinking soft drinks, I have to stop and think, until I consider where they live or where they are. (Or I go with Coke or Pepsi rather than strain my brain.) I had a neighbor from Pennsylvania, and she often would comment on being "nebby" (nosy). I get a particular kick out of the folks in the upper Midwest. When I told my mother I was marrying a man whose family came from further north, she immediately popped out a couple fun dialect words, like "boughten" bread, the "warshing" machine, "go down cellar." And a little to the west, where my sister relocated, you'll hear a lot more of that "ya, sure, you betcha" and "doncha know."

My sister-in-law recently sent this video to my husband. It's a fun example of dialog in certain parts of the country, substituting "Sheryl" for "Siri." 

The point is if your character is native to a certain location, their speech is going to reflect that. The trick is to not overdo the colloquialisms. In the prose portion of the story, the grammar needs to be tidy, but in the dialog, characters are going to speak like "regular folks." When you have a conversation with someone, you don't speak with perfect grammar. "That is true, what you are saying to me" becomes "That's right, what you're saying." And if your character is from Maine, you're more likely to here them saying "Ayup."

Well, you get my drift. Is there something you say that identifies what part of the country (or what country) you're in? (Eh, Canadians?)


  1. Born and bred in Los Angeles; my non-accent has followed me through Florida, both south and central, and Colorado. When I was 13, I visited my 8-year-old cousin in New York, and she asked her mom why I talked 'funny.' When asked for an example, she said, "She says coffee instead of CAW-fee."

    1. Non-accent (or lack of dialect) is a matter of one’s own ears 😉