Have you ever read a story where the author tried to transcribe a character's strong accent on the page? Did you find it difficult to follow? If you did, you're certainly not alone. I've come across it many times in my reading life, and it's one of my biggest pet peeves with writing.
This type of poorly written dialogue can pull a reader right out of a story. As I mentioned in one of my previous articles in this series, your goal as a writer is to create a fictional world that readers are willing to experience, and one of the ways you do that is to grab your readers' attention and get them to suspend their disbelief for a while. Anything that jolts your reader out of your story is something you need to avoid. You have to be especially careful with dialogue, since your enthusiasm for conveying a character's background or ethnicity can lead to you attempting to set down that character's speech pattern in a way that can jar readers.
I'm from Newfoundland, a Canadian province that was originally colonized by the English roughly five centuries ago. Over that time, other groups settled here, including the French and the Irish. Most of the English settlers came from the West Country area of England, and their speech patterns can still be heard in Newfoundland today. Newfoundland has its own dialect of English (complete with its own dictionary), and had specific dialects of French and Irish Gaelic at one time. By the time Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, it had a colorful linguistic history, and this distinctiveness continues to be heard today.
Let's say I wanted to write a story set in an outport on Newfoundland's north-east coast, and I wanted to help my readers get a sense of the unique type of English spoken there. I could do my best to try and write the accent down as I've heard it, like this:
“What'r ya at, ducky? How's she goin'? Yer mudder all right? Las' I 'erd, she was gone up the 'ospital. Has somthin' wrong wit' 'er 'eart, do she? B'ys oh b'ys. Some shame, wha?”
Did you understand those sentences? Did you have to try and figure out what was written there? If you did, you see what I mean when I say that writing spoken accents in dialogue can be jarring to read. Let's try this again with a different approach and see if we can make something more readable:
“What are you at, Ducky? How's she going? Is your mother all right? Last I heard, she was gone up to the hospital. Has something wrong with her heart, do she? B'ys, oh b'ys. Some shame, what?”
See how much easier that is to read? Notice that I still used the same basic word order and vocabulary as before, but I kept the apostrophes to a minimum. I included some of the idioms found in the dialect of Newfoundland English I grew up speaking, so it still conveys the 'flavor' of the dialect, yet you can read it without having to try and make sense of it.
Dialogue is one of the most important tools in the fiction writer's toolbox. It helps us move our stories along, and it sheds light on our characters' backgrounds and ethnicities. When you're writing characters who speak with heavy accents, always remember your readers. Take some time and read those lines of dialogue out loud to make sure they're easy to understand. If you find it difficult to read the lines fluently, chances are your readers are going to have the same problems when they read your work. Find other ways to write that character's accent without abusing the apostrophe, and you'll create characters your readers will be able to understand.