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Voice and Dialect

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Author: Michael Bard

Writing teachers always tell you not to use dialect. And, to a point, they're right. When we hear ourselves speak, we don't hear any accent; it's only other people's speech which carries an accent. Also, dialect, if not done well, tends to make fiction harder to read or understand, which is a big no-no.

So, are the teachers right? Well... yes and no. (You probably expected that answer)

What is dialect? Dialect is a method of purposefully misspelling and distorting words so that they read as though being spoken with a foreign accent -- from the point of view of an author. Generally this is done by dropping consonants (or even entire pieces of words) from the text, leaving an apostrophe substituted in their place, or by purposeful misspellings and incorrect grammar.

Example: The anffropomorphic equine typed at 'is keyboard and tried ter make 'is stories 'orrible by usin' good meffods improperly.

It's a pain to read. But, try reading it out loud as it's spelled. How does it sound? The early novels in the late 19th century were written to be read aloud. They used dialect extensively, and are very hard to read to oneself. But, when read out loud, they become very colourful. Try it.

What is dialect good for? It's good for adding realism to your fiction. It's good for making individual characters have unique and recognizable speech patterns.

What is the cost of dialect? The cost is making your story hard to read, and hard to understand. You gain colour and accuracy at the price of the reader slowing down, losing the spell of the work, the magic of the word, and the chain of thought of the events.

But it does read out loud very prettily.

Remember, speaking is much slower than reading. When you read out loud you have time to work your way through the typed dialect because you're being forced to read slower. Is dialect to the extent of the example above worth the cost? In my opinion, no. And yet, I'm about to tell you that it's still worthwhile to use.

In a modern story, read off the page or screen, you don't need to worry about the sound of the speech. But, you do need to try and make characters distinctive. Dialect and voice is but one tool of many; still, it is a useful tool, especially when you include a lot of dialogue.

Consider the following example: This here anthropomorphic equine banged at them keys on his pretty little keyboard, trying so very hard to make each of his there characters distinctive and unique by using this here good technique properly.

I admit that the example is exaggerated. Note however that there are no misspelled words, no replaced consonants. It's easy to read off the screen, and it's also distinctive.

Also, when used in moderation, consonants and dropped components can help. Consider this example: The anthropomorphic equine banged at them thar keys, tryin' so hard ta make each of them thar characters so distinct and unique by usin' this here technique with some excellence.

This is a combination of both methods. Word structure, and intentional mis-spellings and dropped letters. It's not as easy to read as the second example, but far easier to read than the first.

In other words, the key with dialect is, simply, to not go too far. The last example is probably still a bit overboard, but that was intentional for demonstration purposes. So don't be afraid to try playing around with the speech of your characters. Make it unique, make it colourful. And remember: A little goes a long way.