Thursday, August 10, 2017

Editor's Notes #36: Dialogue Part 1—Regional Overkill


I love listening to people speak. I love the differences in their voices . . . some are clear, some are husky or gravelly. Having a husband whose voice is very deep, I tend to notice when a man's voice is more in a tenor range, and it bothers me a bit, probably because I'm used to a lot more color and richness on an everyday basis. But accents . . . I enjoy listening to people who didn't grow up near where I did, because their accents are different than mine.

Everyone has an accent. Whether it's a "foreign" accent or not is all in the perspective of the person speaking and the person listening. Of course I can't hear my own in the same way a friend from England would, and vice versa. I grew up near Pittsburgh, and I don't know how I escaped it, but I do not speak Pittsburghese, and thank God for that. I love my Pittsburgh friends, but that accent gives the listener a distinct impression of IQ level at times, and it's not a flattering one. I imagine every part of the world has its own area that sounds "lesser" to others, whether those people deserve that label or not. Why else do scriptwriters call for a twangy Southern US accent when there's a dumb guy to cast, or a Cockney accent when auditioning for a working-class Londoner?

Writers face a special challenge when trying to convey speech accents in a novel. Not only do they have to incorporate regional speech patterns, but they have to do it:

  • authentically—if the local flavor doesn't sound right, anyone from that area who reads the book will be put off, perhaps even insulted
  • accurately—if the correct region isn't used, readers will know it and won't hesitate to pan it in a review
  • without overkill

Authenticity and accuracy sort of go hand in hand. Whereas a British person who is writing about an American character may be under the impression that all Americans say "y'all" (and sometimes "all y'all") when referring to more than one person, those from Pittsburgh (my easiest frame of reference for this post) tend to say "yinz." And if you've written a character from New Jersey or parts of New York, they may say "youse" instead. Not everyone speaks like that, certainly but you should at least get it right if you use it.

Accuracy means that you won't have your Australian character calling a woman "mate." According to The Contented Traveller, men only use "mate" for other men. Italians have a phrase, "to give bread for focaccia," which means you've responded to an offense with an even bigger offense . . . perhaps the American version that comes closest would be "to add insult to injury." And before the Harry Potter series and the advent of the more casual British literature, how many American readers knew that "trainers" were sneakers and a "jumper" was a sweater?

Overkill is a factor that should be given great consideration. How much is too much slang or regional-ese? Dialogue can be enhanced and made more authentic by the use of these things, but there comes a point when it can become a distraction to the reader. I don't want to read about the guy from Western Pennsylvania asking, Yinz gone dahntahn to wutch the Stillers n'at? which translates to "Are you (all) going downtown to watch the Steelers?" The n'at ("and that") is one of those things people add and I don't know why. But it's tiresome to read line after line of dialogue that's essentially a foreign language while still written in your own.

One of the ways to show some regional color without becoming laborious is to highlight a phrase or two without making it a constant thing. Arlene Prunkl from PenUltimateWord has a terrific article on dialogue and foreign accents that I read a while back, and she mentions this: nobody speaks the way words are spelled, and if we wouldn't think of writing all our characters' dialogue phonetically, why do we assume we should do it for the characters who speak with an accent we don't consider "standard"?

There are ways to show it without forcing it. A character can lapse into southern drawl when she's tired or angry, or a person can say a phrase like the above-mentioned downtown Steelers game (written typically) and another character (or the narrator) can note something like this:

Though she'd lived all over the world for more than two decades, there was something about being in her hometown for a few months that brought her own accent to the forefront and made her words come out sounding more like dahntahn to wutch the Stillers, and he smiled as he watched her in the midst of her family, each of them talking over the others in their excitement.

Do you write characters with particular accents or regional "giveaways"? How do you manage it without overdoing it? Or have you suddenly realized you are overdoing it and want to thank me with chocolate? (In that case, you're welcome, and contact me privately for my mailing address.)

I'd love to hear how you pull it off without bogging down the writing.

29 comments:

  1. I knew that line about the Steelers before you even translated it! And I'm not from Pittsburgh.
    I usually read Southern accents carried too far. A little goes a long way. (And since I hear it every day, I don't want to read it as well.)
    Most people tell me I don't have any accent. Probably because I've lived all over, including Japan.

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    1. I would love to be a Professor Higgins type who can guess where a person is from, simply by listening to their accent(s). Sounds like you'd be a tough accent to pin down with all your world traveling. How fun, though, to have lived in such a variety of places.

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  2. Mea culpa. The original book of my series, set in colonial Africa, had a German character whose accent was written phonetically on the page. Readers have been kind, and the series has been well-received, but very few commentators ever looked past that point without offering their views, and they were rarely flattering. Lesson learned, and young aspiring writers reading this have an opportunity to learn it for free: Readers will look past a lot in pursuit of a good story, but this is something that seems to be unforgivable. Find a better way to convey this point. You won't regret it!

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    1. Ahh, true confessions, Jack. Like you said, though: lesson learned. Sometimes it doesn't seem like there's an easy stopping point when people write an accent in the dialogue.

      I remember reading, long ago, a comment by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series) as she talked about not overusing the Scottish sounds for her characters, and having to convince her husband that they all didn't walk around all day saying, "Hoot, mon." It was a pretty funny interview.

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    2. Javol, zis vas a hard vun to learn, but if you're too in love with your own cleverness, go ahead and put it out there; the critics will convince you soon enough!

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  3. I try to never use a regional accent. Being originally frtom the Arkansas/Texas border. I am offended when people try to duplicate a southern accent on the page especially when they do a poor Georgia accent for someone from Texas or Arkansas.

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    1. I have friends from Texas who are irritated when someone tries to imitate a generic version of "southern" that is more like Georgia or Alabama than Texas.

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    2. Georgia and Alabama have such a specific accent specifically to those two states. Even neighboring states such as South Carolina Florida, and Mississippi have accents like them much less Texas and Arkansas. We won't go into Louisiana that has more accents than you can shake a stick at.

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  4. Uh oh, glad you can't hear my words. I sound very much like a tenor. But at least I don't have a Cockney accent. That HAS to count f' sumfin, guvna.

    In fact, I don't have any accent at all.
    "I don't have an accent. This is just how things sound when they're pronounced properly." - Jimmy Carr

    And hey, don't criticize my Australian romance novel. He wasn't calling her mate, he was asking her if she wanted to mate. It's all about context.

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    1. I'd probably tolerate YOU as a tenor, because you're actually interesting, unlike most higher-voiced men I've run into. And your Cockney phrase now has me laughing because our oldest (waaaaaay back when he was three or four, and today is his twenty-fourth birthday) used to think it was pronounced "gubnub." I can't watch Mary Poppins without hearing Burt say, "G'luck, Gubnub!"

      I'm sure that Australian romance novel must have been pretty romantic, with all that talk of mating. That type of stuff really woos a gal. And hey, sorry you broke your hand! That makes this comment even more special. You're probably holding a pencil between your teeth and pushing the keyboard letters with the eraser . . . all because you knew I needed the affirmation of your comment on my post. God bless you . . . Gubnub.

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  5. I knew what the Pittsburgh sentence meant without your translation. I don't think I've ever known anyone from that area, but I know the "sound" from reading books with characters from a variety of places. I agree that overdoing that sort of thing is off putting.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. It really is a distraction, isn't it? I once read a Scottish romance (not even a good one) where the author put any Scottish words in italics. Italics! Tell me that wasn't even more distracting.

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  6. As someone who has lived in the south his entire life, I can say the "dumb southerner" got old for me fast.

    I always love to hear accents. As far as writing them, I would say the only time one should phonically write something out is if it was part of the story. As in you want the reader to see how hard it is for a character to understand someone. And I wouldn't keep that type of dialogue around for long periods of time. I don't want to annoy my reader.

    Great stuff.

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    1. I would imagine people with a southern US accent would feel a bit of irritation that their particular speech would be considered the dumb one.

      I agree with your guideline. I edited a book which featured that exact scenario, and it was done well without overkill.

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  7. I recall a 1980s article in TV Guide where the author, Roy Blount, Jr., complained about television's use of the southern dialect to serve as a kind of shorthand to show that characters had negative traits. One example he used was the Archie cartoon series where the stories took place in an "everytown" called Riverdale, but the local idiot (Moose) and the high-class bitch (Veronica) both spoke with southern accents! (By the way, I was sure that I'd read that Mr. Blount died years ago. As it turns out, he is very much alive! Yay!)

    And don't even get me started on Hollywood's treatment of the way they think people from Massachusetts speak!

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    1. Uh-oh . . . now that you've mentioned Roy Blount, Jr. being alive, you will be writing his tribute within the next couple weeks. I'm sure of it.

      I'd be so afraid to write accents of any type, because I know my perception of them is so far removed from what they really are. People would be lining up to punch me in the nose.

      When I was in college, I had a classmate from England who would do his impression of an American accent. Basically, it was him asking for "a chili dog and a beer" with some sort of growly redneck voice, no particular accent, and a scowl.

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    2. On a similar note, here's a link to an Italian guy who does double-talk that sounds like English: http://www.newsfromme.com/2011/01/26/todays-video-link-336/

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    3. Well, rats. I can read the article but the video has been "blocked by Rai on copyright grounds."

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    4. Oh. Sorry about that. It was working when I originally read it, but that was over six years ago!

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    5. Try this. This is similar, and the video still works! http://www.newsfromme.com/2014/03/07/todays-video-link-1642/

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    6. Oh! This is excellent. She does a great job. And it makes me miss Sid Caesar. Thanks for making the extra effort for me!

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    7. Here's part of a story that you may enjoy about Sid, written several years ago by Mark Evanier after attending a memorial for Larry Gelbart:

      "Now, in the best of health, Sid Caesar was never good at speaking as Sid Caesar. In fact, earlier in a clip that was shown, we'd seen Gelbart talking about how uncomfortable Sid was when not enveloped in some sort of character. Now, he tried…but the words just wouldn't come. He started a sentence, lost his way in the middle of it and just froze up. The audience squirmed uncomfortably…

      …and then a smart person in the front row – someone said it was Mel Brooks but I don't think it was – called out, "Sid, try it in Italian!"

      Instantly, Sid began speaking in the double-talk Italian for which he's so famous. It was utter gibberish but it was wonderful, eloquent gibberish that was somehow infused with love for his friend, Larry. The audience went crazy."

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  8. I think this is another area I need to give greater attention to. Most of my characters have had "neutral" accents (although I don't think there's any such thing, is there?) and I haven't introduced many regional inflections. I think it's another thing that's good in moderation. Have you read Trainspotting? Fantastic film and story, but I just couldn't get into the book - the entire thing is written in a very broad, heavy Edinburgh accent. Of course, now I've lived in Scotland for several years I might do better...

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    1. I've never read Trainspotting, but based on your description, I'd probably give up in frustration if that's how it's written. There comes a point when it's just too much inner translation and not enough continuity in the flow of the reading.

      I'm a little envious that you live in Scotland, I have to admit. A friend and I have promised each other for years that we would visit Scotland together after our youngest children graduate (we homeschool, so we feel we deserve the reward). Now that my youngest is starting her senior year and my friend's youngest is only a year behind that, our plans will become a reality within the next few years and we're pretty excited about it.

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  9. I think this post is a good reminder to keep things simple!
    I try to keep the language as universal as possible and remove anything that might be local or complicated. But when/if I write people with accents . . . like my own lol . . . I'm glad you'll keep me in check. By the way, I'm glad you translated that Pittsburgh sentence for me. I would have had to read it a few times to understand it lol

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    1. Pittsburghese is a tough code to crack if you've never lived there. Seriously, who the heck knows what a jagoff is if you're not from the area? But I trust you to write your dialogue skillfully, since I already know you do. And if you don't . . . *waves Red Pen of Doom in the air like a baseball bat*

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  10. The comic at the top cracked me up because where I'm from everyone says pop, but if I go down to the south and the in-laws, people laugh at me for saying pop. It's cool though, because I laugh at them for saying yankee.

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    1. I've always said "pop" and I suppose "soda" can be an adequate first runner-up in a pinch . . . for other people, of course. But to call it all "coke" still cracks me up. Who in the world thought that one up?

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