Sunday, February 12, 2012

Some Dialogue Don’ts

by Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd 

Real-life conversation is no excuse for confusing, irritating, distracting, or boring dialogue coming out of your fiction characters’ mouths. First off, these days you don’t want to frustrate or annoy your readers by trying to reproduce regional dialects exactly as they sound. Also, I’d be cautious about using the very latest slang expressions, which could backfire on you and end up dating your story within a year or two. That would not be cool! (Pun intended.) And overloading dialogue with in-your-face profanities can lose you readers. And finally, please, please, for all of us, leave out all the boring yadda-yadda blah-blah filler stuff!

Don’t mangle characters’ speech

Don’t make the mistake of trying to reproduce regional speech patterns phonetically. As Jack Bickham says, “There was a time, not so long ago, when fiction writers strove for authenticity in some of their stories by attempting to imitate regional and ethnic dialects and pronunciations by purposely misspelling words in their dialogue. Today such practices have fallen into disfavor.”

Why? Because it’s distracting and irritating. Not only that, it runs the risk of obscuring your intended meaning. All of which will result in taking your reader out of your story – the exact opposite effect you’re going for. Also, you could easily end up offending people from that region if you depict their everyday casual language as a kind of inferior, laughable sublanguage.

Here’s an example of what I mean, from an older story about slaves and the Civil War. The passage was narrated by a slave:

  “So dey jump on dey horses and gallop ‘way. An’ we ain’t see’d dem since. Dey friends say dey be kilt in one o’ de firs’ battles o’ de war. Dat be good lesson fo’ we, shure ‘nuf! Black folk ain’t gonna go off ta fight in a war. Life be tuff enuf here wid’ Massa an’ his whip, widout uder buckra be shootin’ at de menfolk an’ killin’ ‘em dead.”

And it went on like that for pages! Ouch!

So these days, phonetic spelling, misspelling words to show different pronunciations, the overuse of apostrophes to indicate missing letters (unpronounced sounds), and other deviations from standard North American speech are frowned upon by most editors, agents, and discerning readers, and may earn a rejection for your otherwise compelling story.

An occasional elision (dropped sound, indicated by an apostrophe) and plenty of regular contractions, with the odd regional word or expression thrown in, is usually enough to get your regional flavor across to your readers.

Don’t try to keep up with the very latest slang expressions
Many new authors try to appeal to their audience by using the latest slang expressions, especially in YA fiction. This is usually a mistake. The language is changing so fast, especially fad expressions, that what’s trendy or “in” today may be already dated by the time your short story or novel sees the light of day. The moral? Be careful with using cutting-edge street talk or just-coined slang expressions. It’s usually best to stick to slang expressions that have been around for at least a few years.

Don’t overdo the profanities
Another area where beginning writers mess up is in replicating every F-word in real life on their page, leaving many readers wincing. Profanities and obscenities can often slide by in real life, depending on the situation, but they usually jump out at us on the printed page, so use them judiciously, to get the general flavor, rather than on every line.

As Jack Bickham says, “Dirty talk often looks dirtier on the page than it actually is.” So save the worst of your swear words for those story situations where a strong curse word is really needed to convey the emotion.
Also, consider your genre. Readers of cozy mysteries, for example, are mostly women aged 60 and up, so best to use less graphic language in those stories. The odd “Damn!” or “Crap!” or "friggin/frickin'" will usually suffice.

Don’t reproduce actual conversations verbatim
By this I mean all the uhs and ums and ers and you knows and How are you? I’m fine, and you? Not to mention introducing people, chitchat about the weather, and other empty social niceties that lead up to (or follow) the real meat of the conversation. That’s a sure-fire recipe for putting your readers to sleep! And they won’t be eager to pick up your book again when they wake up. As Ingermanson and Economy say, “Dialogue is war!” You need tension on every page, including in your dialogue. So if it doesn’t drive the story forward, add conflict or tension, or contribute to character development, take it out.

So, oddball spelling, attempts at reproducing regional dialects phonetically, and heavy use of profanities all risk offending someone, whether it’s a member of a minority or someone who doesn’t like swearing. And the latest slang expressions may soon appear outdated and ridiculous. And really, empty blah blah is boring, isn’t it? So be wary of reproducing characters’ dialogue exactly as it sounds in real life—it could backfire on you.

What do you think? As a reader, how do you feel about the attempted reproduction of regional dialects in fiction? As a writer, how do you show the accent and expressions of a specific region? And how do you research expressions for a region you’ve never lived in or visited? Also how do you feel about stories peppered with obscenities? Are you okay with it, or do you find yourself wincing inwardly?

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes      
Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies
and Jodie’s editing experience

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter


  1. Spelling out regional dialects is irritating to me as a reader, and if it continues, I won't finish the book.

    As a reader, I'm not offended by profanity, especially if it's used in dialogue that's appropriate to the character. As an author, I use as little as possible. Why risk offending readers (with little benefit to the story)?

  2. Great reminders here, Jodie.

    Speech patterns, dialects (regional or ethnic) wear thin after about two sentences. The opportunity to offend people when you get it wrong, or even when you get it right, is enormous. There are other ways to get the idea across.

    Vulgarity and profanity is something I used to avoid completely, but now try to use it in the correct dosage via the character and/or the situation.

    I read a novel by a NYTs bestselling author that was filled with profanity. It was my first time reading him, and my last.

  3. Thanks for your comments, LJ and Peg. I think just sprinkling in those really strong swear words here and there is enough to give us an idea of the milieu and tone, without reproducing every instance of them. I really do think they jump out a lot more on the printed page than in movies or real life. And as you say, why lose readers if it's not necessary?

  4. Good points, Jodie.

    Regarding dialect-- I agree wholeheartedly. I remember in high school and college, reading books thick with regional dialect and feeling like I wanted to claw my eyeballs out. This was especially true with the Civil War/Slavery era. Wading through those God-awful passages was like crawling through gutter mud. It simply wasn't necessary. We got it.

    The point I'm making here--and one I try to adhere to in my own writing--is that the readers are smart enough to adapt to a style of writing and fill in the blanks themselves. Simply inserting cues here and there will go a long way. It's all about voice--that is to say, it's more what you don't say than what you do.

  5. Great points, Drew - and so well said! I loved imagining you wanting to claw your eyeballs out and crawling through gutter mud!

  6. Jodie-

    Damn, I did get a bit descriptive there, didn't I...

    Sometimes I do the equivalent of talking with my hands when I write. Especially when I feel strongly about something.

  7. Let's face it - you're a talented writer, Drew! Remember us all when you really make it big, okay! :)

  8. Drew has already made it big...and yes, he remembers. :-)


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