Dialect =/ Dialog - Complications Ensue
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Friday, February 19, 2010

I had an interesting chat the other day with Allan Hawco, showrunner/star/co-creator of REPUBLIC OF DOYLE. It's a fun, witty private eye series set in St. John's, Newfoundland. One of the many things I like about the show is that the characters all talk in various degrees of a Newfoundland accent -- it gives a real flavor you haven't got elsewhere. Imagine my surprise to hear from Hawco that none of that dialect is in the scripts.

Hawco explained that it's not just a question of mainlander writers not getting the dialect right. The danger, Hawco feels, is that writers work so hard to nail the dialect that they think they've created a character and a scene. But you can wind up with a lot of dialect and no good dialogue.

Thinking about it -- it's very easy to write a guy with a thick lower class accent and think you've created a character, when all you've done is create a stereotype. I can't tell you how many thug characters I've read who come off as cartoons; I wonder if that's partly because they're written entirely in Thug.

I've seen a few UK scripts where there's almost no dialect written out, which surprised me the first time, because there's a hell of a difference between "what the 'ell are you doin' 'ere guvnor" and "what the hell are you doing here, buddy?" I imagine at some point the dialect does have to go in; I can't imagine anyone wants actors translating Standard English into Cockney on the fly. Brit readers, feel free to weigh in.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was working with a guy who has a script with yards of hip-hop dialect. So far as I can tell, the dialect all rings true. But it only served to obscure the flaws in the dialogue. The characters weren't as clear as they could be. The scenes weren't as rich as they could be.

If you have a dialect-heavy project, consider not writing it in dialect until you really lock down what the characters want from each other and what they're saying to each other to get it. Then you can add the dialect later. Like the glaze on a donut.

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2 Comments:

I can't tell from this post whether you're talking about dialect or accent, which are two different things.

Accent (in my opinion) should never be written, you mention the character's accent in an action line when you introduce the character or possibly in a paranthetical when the character first speaks. There's no need to then write all the dialogue phonetically and it's just going to annoy a reader who'll have to stop and try to figure out what word you actually mean every two minutes.

The only possible exception is when you're using an accent so extreme that it's impossible to convey what you intend the actor to say with standard English spelling - for example, in a Glasgow accent, there's no point in writing "going to" if you want the actor to say "gonnae". Even so, I'd say that should be used sparingly.

Dialect however, refers to words and phrases that are associated with a particular area. I know you were probably being facetious, but to use your example, if I was writing a character with a London accent and wanted him to use the word "guv'nor" (though incidentally, if you know any Londoners who actually say that I'd love to meet them ;) ), there is no point in writing "buddy" in the first draft. The kind of person who says "guv'nor" and the kind of person who says "buddy" are very different people and I need to know which my character is before that first draft.

So to me, dialect is pretty intrinsic to the character so it's got to be there as soon as I start writing dialogue; pronouncing the words from standard English spelling is the actor's job and I'd leave it to them!

Now I'll stop waffling at 7:59 on a Sunday morning and get back to the draft I am avoiding by reading blogs...

By Blogger Claire, at 3:02 AM  

There's also the difference between dialect and discourse. Hip hop is a discourse, or to be more accurate, a set of discourses. In Toronto, a lot of people in the hip hop community are Jamaican, or Trini. Their dialect tends towards patois, but their discourse will be hip hop. People who speak in that drawling, expletive-laden, jargon-heavy dialect that represents Rapper, Gangster, Graffiti Writer, Dancer, Basketball Player, or whatever stereotype of what a young black person does, are performing (whether in real life or in fiction). Hip hop is very much tied to youth culture(s), but there's also a very strong current of respect for one's elders; thus, you get people my age referring to something as "stush", you can kinda tell they are a)hip hop, b)jamaican, and c)between 30 and 45. Hip hop discourse is practically never well done in Canadian television. Even Doomstown was kinda stiff.

By Blogger Andrew Masuda, at 4:44 PM  

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