Monday, February 25, 2013

Dialect--how do storytellers put that on paper?

Writers! Do you know what I mean by "dialect"? I'm talking about the parts of Huck Finn that are so tough to read because they're phonetically spelled, or the entire oeuvre of the "Br'er Rabbit" writer (Joel Chandler Harris, who was still on the Western Canon lists when I was in elementary school) that is absolutely unreadable now because it's in so-called "eye dialect."

Recently, a poster on a mystery readers/writers mailing list I'm on mentioned how much she liked dialect. It was said that a couple of writers who use dialect in dialogue "have taken a lot of criticism for it from readers." (To me, there's your first bash from the cluestick: if readers object to something, then you certainly need to re-examine it, why you do it, and how you might get the same effect across differently. But I digress.) She mentioned Faulkner, saying, "If it works for Pulitzer Prize winners, then it certainly can work for them!"

Well . . . let's consider this for a moment. (I'm not sure exactly what kind of dialect the original poster intended, but let's assume the worst, for purposes of argument. Argument being in the nature of a debate, not the finger-pointing and hair-pulling kind, mind you.)

Laying aside the issue that the Pulitzer Prize winners who did this (perhaps we must include Alice Walker, but she doesn't do strict eye dialect all the time) won the prize many years ago, as far as I know, and might not win today because tastes have changed so much, let's look at how a reader experiences a text.

Dialect is very difficult to read and slows a reader down quite a bit. There's a reason that standardized spelling stuff caught on, y'know. (LOL) Mark Twain uses eye dialect (that's what this is called) in Huck Finn, but it's one of the difficult things about the novel. That's because he does phoneticized spellings.

I don't think dialect done that way works well at all today (if it truly ever did).

There are alternatives. Rather than phonetically spelling a misprounounced or differently pronounced word, such as "gulls" for "girls" or "wimmin" for "women," writers can repeat the way they mispronounce the word in the next sentence (instead of respelling it inside the sentence).

"I can't stand that place. All them barren women." Cain't. Wiiimmin.

In this technique, the narrator is "hearing" those words for the reader. A little of this goes a long way; dialect done like this tends to wear on the reader's inner ear very soon, unless done very lightly and skillfully. Best to use this for a minor character and only do it the first couple of times he speaks--and perhaps the final speech of his, as well.

The way to do dialect nowadays, it's pretty much agreed, is to suggest it by diction/word choice and word order. One of my Russian-born characters in MIRANDA'S RIGHTS says things like "Give to me this box." She is also puzzled by some idioms and cliches in English. "He is thinking he pulls the blanket over our eyes. Hah! Him I understand all too well."

A lot of this can make readers roll their eyes. Keep the cast limited to one or two people who have these unusual ways of speaking, unless you want readers to go nuts. Also, don't load up the cast with faux-Aussies and Scots (as in a book I just read) for no reason other than to have them talk funny. It's not funny; we've all seen CROCODILE DUNDEE.

Whatever you do, DON'T try to reproduce dialect syllable by syllable, or even word by word. Don't try to reproduce pronunciation, unless there is some key element that ties into it. What happens is this: your reader (henceforth known as "he") sees the first clues to the way your character ("she") speaks, and thereafter will imagine that accent. So if you have constant strange spellings and "reminders" of the accent, the reader will hear a more and more exaggerated accent, and the whole thing will become ridiculous, no matter how accurately you portray the dialect. If you indicate just enough to suggest to the reader that the character is, say, Southern, he will hear a normal Southern accent when you write, "That boy ain't right. Run over yonder and close that winder, will yew?" This comes across loud and clear, particularly if the character's grammar or word order or slang reminds you of someone.

BETTER. The same question three different ways: "Do you want me to do it?" "Would you prefer that I do it?" "You want I should do it, God forbid you should ask?"

You just "saw" three different people, right?

The main character in one of my novels has a Hispanic mother, and I occasionally have the mother speak a few words in Spanish. The rest of the time she speaks English, with a few un-idiomatic phrases here or there that might show she isn't native-born. As such a character speaks, she will use phrases or words or syntax in a way that reminds the reader. If you have a long bit of dialogue, she can speak standard English, but still keep your character's voice in the ear of the reader. You can use many foreign phrases that are pretty much understood in America without translation--"faux pas," "loco," "dreck." If you're concerned, you can give a translation the way I showed above. "That man is loco." Crazy.

In fantasy/SF or experimental prose, you might have your own phrases in your invented language that you can use this way. "He hated the veroon. It stank."

You don't necessarily need many French words to suggest a French accent. The way a character answers questions can be telling. The French start many answers with "mais oui" or "mais non"; in English, the idiom to use is "but x." (Grey Poupon's ad: "But of course!") "That is not the French way, ma cherie (mon cher)!" Don't go too Maurice Chevalier, though. I had an Arabian character once, and I suggested his broken and accented English by having his grammar slightly fractured, like the cartoon 7-11 clerk: he'd say, "They are pretty much completing." "You do the car washing in your dressed-up pants?" (I guess you had to be there. It sure sounds racist when I retype it like that. My friend Aziz read it for me and laughed, but maybe he was fuming on the inside, right?)

Careful--don't let it drop into parody.

Also, a steady stream of poor grammar out of characters' mouths grates on the reader like sandpaper. A little goes a long way to suggest what you mean. It doesn't take much irregular diction to get the idea of illiteracy across. Believable dialect comes, for the most part, out of using a collection of key phrases and eccentricities. (I wish I remembered who I was quoting there.)

Many moons ago, an acting teacher told me that if a character has a certain trait--a stutter, a limp, whatever--an actor should display it to good effect during the first few lines of her first entrance. After that, just hint at it, without exaggeration or emphasis. Subtlety is the watchword. I think the same method works well in fiction. After all, you embody all the actors as well as the playwright and director here.

You can also have a character drop into his/her "down-home" way of conversing while under stress, in response to certain situations, and when talking to certain people. It is a subtle way of indicating the character's comfort level. Similarly, you can have her subconsciously or deliberately segue into the dialect of another when talking to him.

Have fun with it as you write--but then, when you go back to the draft to revise and polish, check to see that you're doing it one of these ways, rather than the "Br'er Rabbit t'ain't a-goin" way. If you trust me on nothing else--trust me on this.

No comments:

Post a Comment