One thing I know for certain: If you write in dialect, your computer’s spell-checker is going to demand over-time wages—but it won’t do you a licka good nohow, so don’t pay it no mind, y’hear?
Listen, I love writing in dialect—I just don’t recommend it. Not because The Wonderbread Publishing Corporation ‘experts’ tell us not to, but because most of you probably aren’t very good at it. I know that’s harsh, but who am I to Tom Sawyer the truth? Notice how I excluded myself from the pack? Well, that’s only because I’m arrogant and have come to the conclusion I am blessed with an unusually ‘well-attuned ear’. Yeah, I’m a pretty good listener. So, those of you who also possess well-attuned ears are free to exclude yourselves as well—assuming you’re arrogant enough to pull it off, and aren’t averse to wearing Kevlar undies. It’s amazin’ how many enemies a feller kin attract jes’ by scribblin’ this way.
In order to write believable dialogue in dialect, you must be able to hear it. Did you hear me? You have to hear it. If you can’t truly hear it, my friends, you can’t write it.
Listen, we all know that guys from Brooklyn speak in dese, dems, and dos, right? Sure. But if that’s all you got, man, you ain’t never heard Lefty the Nose shuckin’ the jive down on Flatbush waitin’ for the green line to shake down the tube, hear me? That’s Brooklynese with no dese, no dems, no dos. The upshot is: no matter what you think, if you ain’t been on his block, man, you ain’t never heard his music, and you can’t pretend to pitch his patter. Simple as that. There is nothing worse than dialect written in stereotype without the proper rhythms, inflections, and colloquialisms. And you’re whistlin’ in the wind if you try to approximate it without you ain’t heard it. If it ain’t burned into your inner ear, friend, you can’t sing it.
But don’t be too discouraged, friends, because I’ve got a little trick, a shortcut, to share with you. I listen to actors. Yeah, actors. Good actors. Actors whose ears sing unto my ears, and sing me the truth.
When I want to write New York wiseguy, I filter my dialogue through Joe Pesci’s voice. Don’t laugh. It works. If you can truly hear Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, and you’ve mastered phonetics, you’re halfway home when it comes to writing the New York wiseguy dialect. Halfway. The other half requires you to provide Joe’s voice with the appropriate words, rhythms, and nuances. I’m not talking about plagerizing famous screenplays, I’m advocating cultural assimilation via cinematic immersion. Forget the words, just listen to Joe’s rhythms and inflections. I can’t stress it enough—writing dialect is about hearing music. When it’s on pitch, it’s tight harmony. When it isn’t, well, it’s embarrassing.
You want to write good cowboy? U.S. western dialect? Easy. Commit to memory all of Robert Duvall’s lines from Lonesome Dove. If you can approximate Gus McCrea’s drawl, and Larry McMurtry’s genius for colloquial dialogue, you are going to be one mighty convincin’ dialogue-slingin’ hombre.
Listen, the world is full of dialects, vernacular, idioms, and colloquialisms. And when handled with care and aural acuity, they can deeply enrich your work, and enthrall all but the laziest of readers. But I caution you to be very careful. When it comes to dialect and vernacular, if you can’t sing it, you can’t write it.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL