September 10, 2011

Writing dialogue

There was a great article at, of all places, HuffPo this week. It's by Angela Fluornoy and it's called On Dialect, Dialogue and Good Books. She really nailed one point perfectly. Here's a rather lengthy excerpt (since I doubt you'll follow the link to read it):
In my experience, the dialogue that borders on tiring (which really isn't the right word -- I'd say challenging) is that which focuses on spelling words differently to highlight pronunciation (phonology) instead of taking the time to depict how a dialect is syntactically different.
Example (made up by me): "Dey iz headed to da pictsha show."
Because misspelled words require the reader to slow down to get the gist of the pronunciations the author is aiming for, I can see how this kind of dialogue is challenging. It's also a bit condescending; my paternal grandmother is from Arkansas and never finished eighth grade, but just because she pronounces "they" with something akin to a "D" at the beginning doesn't mean she'd spell the word accordingly.

Of course, a good writer can train a reader to understand a lot (See J.R.R. Tolkien, or, for less of a stretch Sapphire's Push), but I still think the best dialect dialogue focuses on syntax.
From James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues: "He don't want to die. He wants to live. Don't nobody want to die, ever."
That sentence is money. It follows the rules of typical AAVE, yet it doesn't assume that readers need to see words spelled differently to imagine the speaker's inflection.
I have nothing to add. She's absolutely right. And I'm happy to report that I follow this rule in my books. Whether it's dialogue for a Latino character, a street person, a religious person or any other group member, I use their language and inflection but spell everything correctly. It's the non-condescending way to do it.

PS: AAVA is African-American Vernacular English.

2 comments:

Artichoke Annie said...

This is odd. I clicked on the link you provided and had an "aha" moment. A friend sent me a book to read, gosh maybe a year ago. I remember starting it and got so bored with the dialect I tossed it aside.

I hadn't gotten around to reading it or returning it, so it was still on the bottom shelf of my nightstand.

I thought this would be my 'good example' of why not to write excessively in dialect. Well, to my embarrassment guess what that book was that I hated and couldn't even remember the title to?

A little novel entitled 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett. How dare I not give it more time than a dozen pages?

You may want to reconsider my opinion of your book - lol.

writenow said...

That's so funny, Annie.