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I've heard a lot of conflicting suggestions in the past regarding dialogue, so I'm hoping I can get a solid answer here.

Some people have told me that the best way to go about dialogue is to make it as compact and to-the-point as possible. Good dialogue, they said, should not sound anything like the way real people talk. Dialogue should reflect the meaning of what's being said -- not what's actually said. There's no "um"s or "uh"s; hesitant pauses and stutters should have no place within the conversation. Slang and dialects should not be reflected in writing, so it's

"It's about time we got going, don't you think?"

and not

"It's 'bout time we got goin', don'tcha think?"

I'm not a fan of this approach. I've always liked writing dialogue as if the characters involved were two real people having a real conversation (so, between the two quotes above, I'd take the latter over the former). Additionally, "um"s and "uh"s can say a lot about a character, the way I see it, and if that character's characterization is important to the story, I'd want to put those "um"s and "uh"s to good use.

But now I've come to a point where I'm afraid of being too realistic. What if one of my characters has severe anxiety, and I want to reflect that through their speech (since it's relevant to the plot)? This character would stutter and backtrack through their words a lot. It's a lot tougher to read, but that's the point since this character's speech is hard to understand.

And what about dialect? I feel like dialect can add a lot of personality to a character's voice. If one of my characters is from the deep American south, I would want to write their dialogue so that it reflects the way that character would actually talk. Charles Chestnutt's "Po' Sandy" was almost completely narrated by a character who spoke in a thick dialect, and though it definitely took a long time to read, I felt like it was worth it in the end. The story wouldn't have been the same if it had been written in standard English.

So, when writing dialogue, which approach is best (or generally accepted by most people)? Should it be precise and only aim to capture the meaning of words rather than the words themselves? Or should it be as accurate as possible, even if that means that the speech will be harder to read?

Should I write easier dialogue if I'm writing for a younger audience? (Young adult vs. adult fiction?)

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I would recommend trying to get hold of a typed transcript of a real person talking, and attempting to read it. The ones I've seen are required to be written exactly as the person speaks, though I'm not sure all are done this way. After trying to read real speech for a short time, you'll realize why it is rarely done in writing. I tried reading something that I myself had spoken out loud, and it was a struggle. – Mike.C.Ford Jan 18 at 9:14
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I think the problem is, too much of the latter style will be tiring on a reader's eye and "ear" (they "hear" the characters speaking as they read). It's sometime laborious too because they have to figure out how to pronounce weird things characters say.

Gone with the Wind is a drastic example of this, because Margaret Mitchell did just that when writing the African-American characters in her book. (I've never read it to know.) Modern audiences seem less accepting or patient.

But to give a flavor for the character, a few examples of how they speak and then lightening the effect over time might be viable. Sprinkling it throughout would be another approach. I know I struggle with this too. Sometimes the way the character speaks is as, or more, important than their physical appearance.

As authors, though, we have to get out of our own way and let the readers create the fictive dream around what we give them. It can't be too much or too little, so we have to walk the tight rope and find the right balance.

Minor characters with short appearances can be done that way without worry too much, but if its a major character with a lot of dialog, it might become tedious.

Hope that offers some help.

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2  
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is also a well-known exception. I'd say that unless you are emphasizing cultural differences, clean dialogue is the way to go. – ricksmt Jan 15 at 23:23
    
@ricksmt Yep, forgot about Huck Finn. I'm sure there are many examples, but Mitchell's jumped to mind for me because it's the one my wife points to whenever she's making this point to me. :) – Josh Jan 18 at 19:40

"It's about time we got going, don't you think?"

"It's 'bout time we got goin', don'tcha think?"

Both these guys sound the same to me. They both have my voice, they both have my accent, and I suspect that accent is a few thousand miles off where it's supposed to be. The problem is, one took much longer to scan than the other.

When reading a page we do not read one letter at a time. We recognise entire words and even phrases in one glance using just the familiar shapes of words, and a quick estimate on the letters contained within--especially the first and last letter--and an educated guess at what words are likely to come up next.

By breaking up your words into unfamiliar shapes, and omitting key letters you thwart your reader's natural abilities and force a letter-by-letter reading. And at the end of it, we, the readers, don't get much benefit for our invested effort.

The same applies to whole sentences.

I'm thinking, uh, of, maybe, not going to college, like, uh, this year. So...

Is realistic, and seems right when writing it, but is just plain horrible to read when compared to...

I'm thinking of not going to college this year, so...

And if you think it lacks the performance you had pictured in your head, come up with a different performance which both writes and reads easily.

She said nothing for an hour, just twisting her hair around a finger, watching clouds, watching kids over by the lake. Somehow, the exact moment I had a flutter about where I left the car keys, she said her first words, 'I'm thinking of not going to college this year, so...' and when I turned back, she was distant again as if nobody had said a word.

Okay, that's not art either, but you get the idea.

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It's interesting that you'd say that the first two quotes sound the same to you. They sound very different to me when I read them. But thanks for the insight. I think there's definitely a line where the realism becomes too much. – Summer Jan 15 at 23:58
    
Possibly because I speak like that, but almost certainly not with the accent you have in mind, and most peope around me, speak like that too, but with diverse accents. – mwo Jan 16 at 0:24

Strike a balance. Your character who speaks in dialect uses different vocabulary, word order, grammar than the person who speaks in the Received Standard version of the language.

  • Non-Dialect American English: "Can I come see you tomorrow?"
  • British English: "Shall I knock you up?"
  • Brooklynese: "I'll come call f'you."

Only in the third one would I change the spelling, and that's to indicate the contraction of for you to the reader's ear. Focus more on the content than every slurred syllable or swallowed dipthong. Using "Oi!" instead of "Hey!" immediately indicates British, which primes your reader at least to assume that the character has some kind of British accent.

You can drop a few Gs (callin', sayin') because that's not too tiresome to read. A broad Southern accent can be represented with Boy, Ah say, boy, you're about a subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel'a oatmeal.

I would only use the ums and uhs when it's important to indicate stammering and stuttering, like your anxious character.

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I usually start with too much, including profanity for my adult material, and scale it back from draft to draft. The degree of scaling will give you a menagerie making your characters more unique so that they don't sound like running author stream. – Stu W Jan 15 at 23:50
    
@StuW Very good point. It's sometimes easier to take away than to add in. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 16 at 0:09
    
Do British seriously say "knock you up?" Glad to know that before some guy said that to me and I sprayed him with pepper spray. – Keobooks Jan 16 at 16:36
    
@Keobooks According to a bit of research, it's real slang: effingpot.com/slang.shtml and the first comment here: blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/09/… but I've never heard it in the wild, so to speak. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 16 at 19:43
1  
As a Brit, I usually hear knocking someone up used in the context of to impregnate someone (as I assume it is used in the US), so that sentence reads very differently to me. Knocking something up is to piece something together as the referenced link says, so relating to the question it's probably important not to have dialect that is too niche to a particular region, as it could be misunderstood by anyone not familiar with it. But regional instances of phrases should probably be its own question, it's a very big topic. – Mike.C.Ford Jan 18 at 9:08

I enjoyed James Whitcomb Riley and Joel Chandler Harris (Uncle Remus) when I was a kid. But as an adult, I find it tiring to read. I think writing in the vernacular should be reserved for characters with VERY strong accents or dialects. And still, it would be better to find a way to write the sentences in plain English, but use grammar and word order instead of changing the way words are spelled.

I had a character that was foreign, but spoke fairly understandable English. I chose to write his voice using proper English, but he worded things awkwardly so you could tell he understood the basics of grammar, but didn't quite understand why native speakers use one word over another.

"I am thinking of this question now. What is this word..you are saying. I think it is...hamster?"

I wanted to show that the guy was fishing for words. When he asks what the other character is saying,in used a period instead of a question mark. I'm not sure why, but whenever I hear a non-fluent speaker ask for a definition of a word, it sounds like a statement instead of a question.

The only times I used an accent on him was when he mangled up a word, and the other characters had trouble understanding him. My MC hated how the guy always mispronounced his name. It grated on his nerves so I made a point to always spell it out exactly as he pronounced it. Because it set the MC completely on edge.

Anyway, I'd use it sparingly. Just my opinion though. Edited to add: if you want to read an excellent example of someone writing to show how someone speaks by simply changing the words instead of writing out an accent, try "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris. He's writing about his experience living in France and not learning the language before he moved there. Actually, David Sedaris is a master of giving characters regional accents without slipping into the vernacular. Read anything of his.

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Perhaps one way to see it is that you are representing reality, not copying it. In the same way that a painting (even those of the photographic realism school) represents or shows reality rather than tries to provide an exact copy of it, so too with writing. I want my characters to sound like real people without actually copying how real people speak -- incomplete sentences, fillers, ect.

Even though I read it nearly thirty years ago, I remember some of the voices from Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' because they were so authentic, yet so different. However, he didn't just 'photocopy' real speech.

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How would you suggest making characters sound like real people without using filler words if those characters have bad anxiety or are just generally awkward to talk to? If I write some action around the dialogue showing how awkward and scared that character is but have the dialogue itself be clean of stutters and fillers... That seems contradictory to me. But maybe that's just me. Thoughts? – Summer Jan 16 at 0:00
    
I don't know how good writers do it. I wish I did. They just do. – Tave Jan 16 at 11:13

OK, I'll try:

"Stormy! Oh my gosh, it is so good to see you! ... Stormy?"

Stormy opened her mouth as if to speak but nothing came out. She half-heartedly smiled in recognition of her friend's greeting only to look down towards her toes.

"Stormy, is something wrong?" Ginger asked.

"Well, it's just that, I don't know ..."

"How about if we just start with hello?"

"OK," Stormy said with an ounce of confidence. "I think I can handle that: Hey, Ginger. It's sort of good to see you."

"Sort of?! Now you're gonna have to tell me why you're freaked; otherwise I'm gonna be upset."

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Now, you don't have to listen to any of these rules. As long as your dialogue isn't overly convoluted, like "ba'aout tiym' dn'tch'y'a th'n'k?" You should be fine. Good luck!

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