Rules of the Road: Dialect

Today we're talking dialect. Why? Because it should be addressed, and it should be addressed as part of a list that I hope to compile as this blog goes on: Rules of the Road. These are bits and pieces of advice I'm giving myself (and any others who find them useful), based on my experience as a writer and as a reader. (This next is coming from me: the reader.)

I recently read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, as part of a reading challenge on Goodreads. The Help is one of those books that's been getting a ridiculous amount of attention lately, so I sat down to read it with a grain of salt and a cup of tea, and some deep breaths. Looked at the cheerfully bright cover. Opened the cover. Flipped to chapter one. And saw... this:

"Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning."

Bam. Right there in the second sentence. That otherwise innocuous 'a' immediately shouted at me: dialect. Of course that one 'a' is small, but when it's followed by a sentence that includes "before they mamas even get out a bed," you know that dialect is here to stay.

At this point I was making faces at the book and preparing for a painful journey. A few chapters later I was relieved to find that the book was narrated by three women, only one of whom narrated in dialect, so I ended up finishing the book with a pleasant, "liked-it" feel (because I did end up liking the book, notwithstanding the dialect) - but I was still less than thrilled by every section told by Ailbileen.

I do understand the drive to write in dialect, the urge to present as realistic a landscape as possible. But still, I simply don't like reading a piece written in dialect. It trips me up. When I read I want to forget that I'm reading and just sink into the story; dialect draws my attention directly to the writing and succeeds brilliantly at taking me out of the story, a feat that (I assume) most writers don't aim for.

That said, I do think there are some places that dialect, or foreign speech patterns, can work well. I don't generally have a problem, for example, with dialect in speech. It's when a character narrates a story in dialect that I lose patience - it's just too much! I also am all for the peppering (in moderation) of foreign words into dialogue or narration in order to set the scene, especially if the foreign culture being presented is one with which readers will most likely be unfamiliar. (This can be especially effective when setting the scene in a science fiction or fantasy novel, where the readers are dumped into a landscape that is completely unknown. Just don't go overboard.)

In closing, here's the rule: Don't narrate in dialect. Just don't. In smaller doses, dialect can work, but not in narration.

(Also, I did enjoy The Help. I might even go so far as to say I recommend it. It just so happened that my most recent experience with dialect came with The Help, hence its presence in my "don't do dialect" blog post.)