On Writing Accents, Slang, and Language

Generally speaking, I support rules when it comes to creating art. Although I'm not steadfast and unbreakable in that belief, I prefer to look at artistic rules as strongly suggested guides

Can every rule be broken? Of course it can. And of course, artists should try to stretch the boundaries within themselves and in their chosen medium of expression. But I also think that you shouldn't really try to break the rules until you know them and understand why they exist. 

Because when you don't do that, when you don't practice the rules and learn why they are the way they are, you don't come off like a maverick. It looks like amateur hour. 

You may think you're Orson Welles reinventing film right off the bat (and often forgetting that he spent years directing experimental theater, not to mention experimental radio, prior to directing Citizen Kane), but in reality, the work created is not worth the money you're asking people for.

I'm getting off-topic here. 

Focus, Bobby, dammit. Back to dialogue and accents.

The long and the short of it is that when you're writing dialogue, skip writing the accent. There's no need to phonetically spell out each word. What you think is making your work sound authentic and realistic is really a distraction that constantly takes your readers out of your story.

Instead, you're far better off creating a realistic depiction of a setting, time period, a small pocket of the world, whatever, and just let your characters talk. Trust that your audience will do the heavy lifting to fill in the blanks. Give your audience just enough to chew on and they'll take it and happily digest it. In fact, doing this makes your job a little bit easier. Your readers might even fill in those minuscule details that you never saw coming. 

But, man, you go too heavy-handed on the dialogue and they'll never be able to release themselves enough to relax into the world you've created.

Bro, where's this coming from?!

Yesterday, being a Wednesday, was new comic book day. At my local store there was an independent writer/artist selling his work. So I gave it a shot. And by page three (and perhaps maybe only 10-12 panels), I was done and couldn't continue. And it was all because of the forced language and accents the writer was so desperately trying to hit you over the head with.

I don't want to out anybody and talk shit just to talk shit, so I won't name the work or the writer, but I'll give you enough to explain what I mean. The setting for this story was New York in the 1930s.

New York. 1930s. 

I willing to bet you already know what that sounds like. I know I do.

On the first page, you already have lines such as "Dis is my city, New Yawk.....de faces of the average man wreakz..... men in doze iv-ery towaz... youz couldn't buy a jawb.... lucky to be wawking... dere has to be somethin' maw.... maybe I'll be selling newspaypaws...."

Is that what 1930s New York sounds like to you?

Page one. You get the point. I barely made it to page two, and checked out on page three. As a reader, it started to get insulting. I spent as much time trying to translate it as I did trying to get into the story.

But Mark Twain did it, didn't he?!

Yes, Mark Twain did.

Mark.

Twain.

A master storyteller who is arguably one of the best in all of human history. He may not be your number one for that list, but he's in the discussion. And also, when Mark Twain did it, he was writing contemporary stories in a world he was familiar with. He wasn't writing almost a hundred years removed from his setting. That's important to remember.

But you did it in Dog Duty?! You hypocrite!!!!

I have a character who speaks with a heavy cockney accent, yes. And also, thanks for reading my novel, by the way!

But allow me to explain my technique and what I did. For me, the defining characteristic of a cockney accent is a lack of any "H" sounds. Instead of trying to ape the entire dialect, all I did was play with words that had an "H" sound with it.

For example: A "Get out here. Go patrol the block again," becomes "Get out of 'ere. Go patrol the block again." 

And you know what, some might even say that is too much. The point is, I teased enough of how this character talks for readers to fill in the rest of the accent. Instead of phonetically spelling out every word of dialogue, Henry (the character in question) uses words like "bloke" "copper" "scram" and "ain't." I think that's enough to paint a picture of how he sounds. 

Just as important too is that he's a reasonably minor character who doesn't get a whole lot of page time, so I'm not milking the gimmick dry. A quick in and out, if you will. 

Bottom line here: when you're writing a character who speaks with a pronounced accent, tread lightly. Oh, so lightly. If anything, err on the side of too little. 

I remember something from a beginning acting class that applies here as well. If you're playing a character who has a limp, don't pronounce your hobble with every step. Just a little limp goes a long way. 

So, there you go. Keep breaking those rules... but only after you master them. 

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