for writers and readers….

MONDAY CREATIVE WRITING EXERCISE because it’s a good way to start the week DIALOGUE: ACCENTS

One of the first things you need to consider when writing dialogue is the vocabulary and the way it is expressed. Does it fit the age, education and experience of the character who is speaking?

No one – with the possible exception of Stephen Fry – talks in the way they would write.

Can’t sounds much more natural than cannot: don’t instead of do not.

People usually only employ very correct, formal ways of talking when they want to create an impression – a parent telling a child off, for example, or a person seeking to display their authority.  Your characters should do the same.


Ok, so the way we use language differs depending on whether we are speaking it or writing it and that difference has to come across on the page. But what about how it sounds?

There is a tendency to think that other people have accents we just speak.

The truth is we all speak in a way that reflects where we come from and our experiences, but only some character are subject to the indignities of dropped letters and other visual tricks.
Here’s an example of it done very, very badly. So badly it makes you want to wince.

 “Ello, Miss,” he said, politely touching his forehead with a finger in a kind of salute. “It’s a right ‘onor. ‘Course, my old mum an’ I, we seen all yer pictures. She’s a great fan ‘o yers, is me mum.”

 It can be done well. Here’s a short snatch of dialogue from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Jim, an escaped slave, is talking about what he will do when he knows he is safe.

 ‘Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free mnan, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.’

Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by E...

Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by EW Kemble from the original 1884 edition of the book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, it can be a struggle to read on the page and we are perhaps less prepared to give it the time and attention it needs as a reader in 1884 when Huck was first published.

 You can see that Twain also uses phonetic spelling to capture the voice of his character and this is often easier on the eye. However, you don’t have to hammer it home with every word: be consistent with a few words and make sure that the spelling you use accurately reflects the way it is pronounced. Don’t be lazy and use faithful old stand-bys like gonna unless you know that is exactly how your character speaks.

I would also suggest introducing special dialect words. Trust the reader to pick up on their meaning through the context for example “The craic is mighty.”

When A GOOD CONFESSION was published an American reader did complain that she didn’t find words like eejit accessible. I would perhaps have had more sympathy if I had used such words often (I don’t call about 10 times in 85,000 words often) and she hadn’t suggested that they should have been an American translation of such difficult ENGLISH words. I explained gently that English readers would also have to work at understanding that 1) it was a mild, often humorous, insult 2) it wasn’t exactly the same as calling someone an idiot.


Another dialogue tool is grammar. It can be used to express different speech patterns. The only ones I am familiar with are Gaelic such as the Scots phrase:  ‘are you wanting to go?’ but I think the same holds true for Caribbean English.

Here’s another example from a speech made at a funeral.

“We loved the great woman’s heart of her.”

An Englishman or woman couldn’t have said that. If they wanted to express the same sentiments it would have to be something like:

“She had a great heart.”


“She was a big-hearted woman.”

I think the first line shouts Irish as strongly as a green passport. Irish English is sometimes called Hibernian English and it has a distinctive quality because  Irish grammar is imposed on the English language

 No book can tell you how to do this – you have to listen and if you are going to have a go at putting a distinctive way of speaking down on the page start by listening to the voices that surround you, the ones from your own community and the streets where you live, the ones you hear on television and radio and, like a musician, practice, practice, practice.

Listen to this wonderful piece of film made by Tralee music technology students. It translates Pulp Fiction into a Kerry accent.


Then have a go at this short exercise. Create THREE different characters just by the way they respond to the classic question.

“Could you lend me ten dollars/euros/pounds?”

They are all saying the same thing: no.

How they phrase it will reveal something about them and their relationship with the person asking for money, but you can also tell the reader where they come from.

Can you write one in a Kerry accent? Now, that’s a challenge.

If you like this exercise then there’s a pretty good chance you will like my ebook BACK TO CREATIVE WRITING SCHOOL 30 practical and witty exercises to defeat the blank page. Read what five best selling novelists had to say about it and check out the reviews HERE.

2 comments on “MONDAY CREATIVE WRITING EXERCISE because it’s a good way to start the week DIALOGUE: ACCENTS

  1. ann perrin
    January 28, 2013

    Wrote a diary once about teaching Romany gypsies using quite a lot of dialect, but found it worked better as a play. Really hard to carry this one off, good luck to those that try it.

  2. Pingback: The most popular posts of 2013 were about publishing opportunities, the Nobel Prize and a rather misleading X rated story… | BRIDGET WHELAN writer

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2013 by in Muse and tagged , , , , , , .


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