Three Common Dialogue Challenges and How to Beat Them

Common Dialogue Challenges and How to Beat ThemBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

What do we do about a character who speaks in a dialect? In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted? Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?

Even if you’re normally confident when it comes to writing dialogue, these questions can give us hives as we struggle to find the answer. I hope to help chase the hives away.

What do we do about a character who speaks in a particular dialect?

If you’ve ever tried to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe, you’ll know how frustrating it can be to slog through dialect written out phonetically. You don’t want your reader to have to work that hard. So how do we find the balance between authenticity and readability?

Just name it.

She had a heavy New York accent.

He sounded like he was from the Deep South.  

Is this telling rather than showing? Yes, but it’s one of the situations where it’s actually okay to tell. In fact, if you don’t know how to replicate a dialect well enough to do it correctly, this is the wise option.

This technique works most successfully if you’re choosing to name an accent your reader will immediately be able to call to mind.  

Filter it through the ears of another character who isn’t familiar with the dialect. I personally love when an author does this well, but it only works if your character isn’t familiar with the dialect.

Jim glared at her. “You spoiled him. And after all, that ain’t no real kindness.” It came out like You spiled ‘im. And arter all, t’aint no real kindness.

You don’t have to do this more than once for the reader to understand what your character sounds like when they’re speaking.

Point out a distinctive word here and there. This option works in the same situations as the one above.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize.” When she said sorry, it sounded like soar-y instead of sari. I couldn’t get past the mental image of her covered in seeping wounds.

Forget copying it exactly, and instead think in terms of rhythm, word choice, syntax, grammatical mistakes, and missing words. Abileen’s chapters in The Help by Kathryn Stockett could be a master’s class in this. Listen to part of The Help’s first paragraph.

Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

She uses “a” instead of “of.”
“I done” not “I have.”
“Them” and “they” instead of “those” and “their.”

Small but important grammatical mistakes.

Stockett chooses the word “mamas” over “mothers.” She chooses “toilet bowl” rather than “potty” or “bathroom” or “crapper.”

Syntax is basically about the patterns that form sentences and phrases. Stockett could have written, “I take care of white babies.” But she didn’t. She wrote, “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do.” She reversed the normal and expected order.

And when you write dialect this way, you’ll not only make the read easy and immersive for your audience. You’ll also avoid stereotypes and condescension.

A great source for preliminary dialect research is

In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted?

I asked this question to award-winning historical romance author Jody Hedlund during my interview with her.

You can read Jody’s full answer by clicking the link above, but in a nutshell, she said, “I don’t try to imitate the time period speech exactly. I usually pick out distinct words and assign them to particular characters to use throughout the book.”

When in doubt about whether a word is too modern, look it up. Jody suggested as her go-to. will also often tell you when a word originated. You don’t have to stick solely to words from the era you’re writing about, but the closer you can come, the better.

A word might also sound too modern even if it isn’t. Occasionally, you’re going to run into a word that’s ancient but sounds modern. Technically you’re correct in using it, but I’d recommend changing it. Not all readers are historical scholars. They go by what sounds right. 

Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?

In every critique group, fiction intensive, or mentorship class I’ve ever attended with other fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction writers, this question has come up. And the class divided down the middle on the answer.

Those who felt contractions were acceptable argued that taking them out made the writing sound stilted and awkward. Those who felt contractions were unacceptable argued using them made the writing sound unauthentic and modern.

In a mentorship class I took from Randy Ingermanson, he pointed out that most languages, even ancient ones, had a way of shortening words or slang that made certain words and phrases easier and quicker to say.

Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman point out in their book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language that Old English used contractions. For example, ne is (“is not”) contracted to nis (“isn’t”) and ne wolde (“would not”) contracted to nolde (“wouldn’t). Contractions went in and out of fashion over the years, more so in writing than in speech. Even among the upper classes, contractions would have been used and tolerated in speech when they were considered unacceptable in writing.

So where does that leave us? We need to always strive for dialogue that sounds smooth and natural. If an excessive removal of contractions leaves our work feeling stilted and awkward, we should look for other ways to give an authentic feel.

We can instead rearrange the syntax of our sentences. We can remove contractions at key moments for emphasis (and downplay them throughout). We can replace modern-feeling phrases with ones slightly less common.

Do you have any other tips for handling these problems? What authors do you think handle them well?

If you missed out on the earlier installments in this series, click the following links to read 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, 7 Tricks for Adding Variety to Your Dialogue, How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your Characters, and Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

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