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Is it advisable to use slang and euphemisms as a narrator, in addition to the main characters who use it? Are there arguments for and against it?

For example, if I were to write about street thugs and their exploits, would using slang in the narration bring the reader closer to the characters? Or would it be considered inappropriate and distracting?

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7 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Agreed that it all depends on who the narrator's supposed to be, and, frankly, what tone you're trying to bring across to the reader.

Two of my favorite opening paragraphs of all time:

When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smoky skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of Spring's flowering meads; when learning stripped the Earth of her mantle of beauty and poets sang no more of twisted phantoms seen with bleared and inward looking eyes; when these things had come to pass, and childish hopes had gone forever, there was a man who traveled out of life on a quest into spaces whither the world's dreams had fled.

H.P. Lovecraft, "Azathoth"

Contrast with... this:

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time, though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Perhaps not a lot of slang in either, but talk about different tones. Lovecraft famously wrote of stuffy, deliberate intellect clashing with cosmic horror, and his narration is somewhere between sonnet and scientific-journal entry.

Palahniuk, meanwhile, reads like a wild-eyed young man, slightly out-of-breath, who's just flung an arm around your shoulder and started telling you a story.

Think about how you want your story to sound - like the confession of a learned man, or like the antics your buddy related to you at the bar, and let that guide the way your narrator speaks. And the emphasis on sound and speech brings us to a classic tip: read your narration out loud. Nothing else will make the awkward bits quite so obvious quite so quickly.

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+1 for great examples with clear reasoning, @djacobson. These paragraphs contrast nicely. –  Peach Nov 27 '10 at 16:31
    
good example of style and sound, but it doesn't address one of the fundamental difficulties of using slang or jargon which is that the reader may not understand the words used. –  Panda Mar 29 '11 at 7:27
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For a good, modern example, see The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The entire story is told by a narrator who speaks, not only with slang, but with impenetrable, culturally specific slang, largely in Spanish. It gives the whole book an immediacy, and you feel almost as if you're sitting on the steps with a beer, listening to this crazy dominicano telling you the story as he paces back and forth on the sidewalk, making big hand gestures. Quality book, won a lot of awards, sold a lot of copies.

So the answer is absolutely, with the caveat that, if it's not done well, it's better not to do it at all. And it should (imho) only be done in the first or second. Even if you're using some Gatsby-esque first-person-pretending-to-be-third-person device, that's fine, but impersonal narrators speaking in slang is a little weird, again, in my opinion.

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It depends on the narrator. Is the narrator a character in the story or not? If he's not: If you're trying to foster the idea of an unreliable narrator, it helps to use slang. If he's more of a classical narrator, don't.

If he IS a character, then just write how he'd talk. Done and done.

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I think using slang in the narration can be quite a powerful tool. One example is Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy. In it, he has a number of core characters. A group of 5 to 6 people who are key to the development of the storyline throughout the three books. Depending on from which perspective each chapter is written, the narration changes. It is a clever and difficult technique. It helps the reader to attach themselves to the perspective, and adds more atmosphere to the character.

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It depends on who the narrator is. For example in Wuthering Heights, there are two narrative voices; the first is a gentleman and written accordingly while the second is a housekeeper and she speaks in a more common, local dialect with different characterisation than the first voice. If the narrator is of a particular rank or class the writing should reflect that (but beware of overdoing it.) If the narrative point of view is the omnipotent, anonymous voice then it shoukd generally be more standard, more formal.

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Who is the narrator? Was he a street thug? If he was, then it wouldn't make much sense to have him narrating using the Queen's English. The narrator should talk in their voice, not yours.

Don't distract from the story though. As in don't spell words in weird ways or go overboard with things the reader might not understand without referring to urbandictionary.com. That would distract the reader from the main points of the story.

Use just enough to setup the character, then pull back so we can understand what you're talking about.

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Using dialect or slang can work very well, but it usually doesn't. (Mark Twain is the only example I can think of where it was done well.) Slang is another matter, with some of the same pitfalls. Having characters using slang and the narrator not, that might be distracting. I'd suggest writing a chapter or three, putting them aside for a bit, then reading them to see how it worked.

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