How Writing Dialect is All in the Rhythm

Likewise, an uneducated Polish immigrant will have different rhythms and word usage. Again, in this example, all the words are spelled correctly, yet we gain a sense of accent.

“You know, Stosh,” Stanley said, waving a meaty hand at the bow.

“This boat.” He turned his head slowly, inspecting the rusty vessel. “Is not good. Is metal.” The heavy-set fisherman straightened his cap.

“Me? I like wooden boat.”

In both cases, we used the correct spellings of Standard English words with two completely different results. The characters’ histories, cadence and the placement of the words established the effects.

What about wanna, shoulda, coulda and oughta? There are no fast and hard rules about their use. Ask one editor and she’ll tell you they’re okay. Ask another and he might say their use is for hacks and amateurs. Many widely published writers use these or similar words. Generally, if it doesn’t slow the reader down, or knock them out of the flow, it’s okay. The bottom line is you can’t please everyone. Best advice. Use sparingly.

The same holds true for yo, y’all, you’z guys and other such local phrases. Compare the following two snippets of dialogue:

“You all hurry back. Do you hear me?” and “Y’all hurry back. Ya hear?”

Which one is more real, more natural sounding? Would you guess the second speaker is from the southern US? Sometimes there just isn’t any other way to say something than with the use of colloquialisms. (Right, mate?)

The best dialogue uses a combination of word cadence, selected contractions and a sprinkling of slang appropriate to the period and location. A seventeenth century English gentleman’s dialogue whilst appeareth quite different than that of my friend Bubba’s, who’s fixin’ to get him a Moon pie.

If you have done a good job establishing your character, much of the issue of dialect and accent will take care of itself. Your readers are savvy enough to plug in the right dialect when all of the other elements are present. Trying too hard to create that authentic-sounding accent using phonetically spelled aberrations of the English language will, more often than not, simply annoy your reader.


Arena by Cameron Michaels
Cameron Michaels, author of Arena, is a fiction writer residing in Nashville, TN.