Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Written Accents and Stuttering

Notes on Craft

In follow up to last week's dialog tags post I have a question I was asked about how to write out accents and stuttering in works of fiction.

Generally, I'd say less is more and that instead of spelling it out like it sounds you can always tag it as he stuttered, Dick slurred, Jane hiccuped. In a conversation on the topic I suggested this same point, which I was rewarded with the immediate fluttering of another party admonishing us to watch the number of tags you use!


See the dialog tag post for the reason why this made me want to bang my head against a wall or -- more satisfyingly -- bang someone else's head against the all. Tags aren't the enemy; the enemy is a writer that can't use tags well.

Let's start first with accents:

Pick your battles. Writing out everything phonetically can be overwhelming, both to the reader and the writer. Or you could end up with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Are Watching God where even the narration is phonetically spelled out form of dialect. But the less ambitious of us -- and especially those of us who are not native speakers of a dialect -- should probably pick smarter battles.

I've heard introductions of characters say things with tags (yes tags!) like he rumbled with a soft brogue. I've also seen a sentence following the dialog where the narrator comments on the hint of a Slavic accent or the character's slow drawl or perhaps that his clipped accent made him difficult to understand -- all of these done without actually attacking or modifying the spelling of any of the words in between the quotation marks.

If there are certain phrases a character would use be sure to throw them in: the Irish are fond of saying that's grand, for example; ken instead of know is associated with Scottish speech; and a Frenchman is certain to catch himself yelling merde! long before his brain even considers that the word in English is shit! Although in defense of Canadians, I'd like to suggest not attempting to write a Canadian accent unless you've spent enough time in Canada to know how it really sounds. Most people who think they know end up writing dialog that reads like a cartoon character. And on that note, the British, Canadians, Michiganders, and the fine people of Minnesota (along with others, I'm sure) all use the word eh? as a question form akin to the French n'est ce pas?

So now that we've chosen our battles with accents. What about stutters?

Someone sent me this example:
“No-o-o it won’t-t-t be. Sh-sh-she has gon-n-ne too fa-a-ar-r. Too far, Dan-n. Too far-r.”
Woah. First off I'd pare down the length due to repetition. Then get rid of any stuttering that doesn't occur on the first sound of the word just because it's distracting to read even if this is how someone actually stutters. I can't say it enough, that it does not matter if this is true to life, because if a reader thinks it's over the top then they won't believe it as fiction or as real life.

That said, if you have a stuttering character, and they stutter all the way through your story then you might just want to give them one or maybe two sounds they can't produce. We'll get the picture. We'll even think it's worse than it might be.

If it's a stutter out of fear or shock, then those little dialog tags are here to ease things over without using too many of those little dashes. She gasped out, or, my fave, she tripped over her words.

Revised example:
"Sh-she's gone too--" Jane hiccuped "--far. Too far."

We still get the idea without being beaten over the head.

But you know what else is a wonderful tool for all of this? Internal dialog.

Wait, I hear groaning, I hear someone nagging me about that "show, don't tell" maxim. To that I say: internal dialog is showing! ... if done right.

A narrator thinking another character's accent is sexy would be telling, unless it was used as a starting place for showing the turmoil her realization of her attraction brings with it. Accordingly, the character who stutters while thinking that she hates it when she cries so hard she stutters is a little too obvious. But if she hates that she stutters because it makes her look weak, and she hates appearing weak because of such and such, well then you've got some inner conflict going. And inner conflic is sexy.

Up Next: New Fiction Friday

Highly Recommended