Writers play with language. This is definitely a kind of game. However, the same way someone doesn’t use chess pieces to play checkers, certain devices are couched in cultural conventions. While not “rules” exactly, these conventions serve to ensure written work is understood by the largest possible readership.
Of course, everyone breaks these conventions just to see if they can, and the following three “toys” of dialogue are a tempting playground. Most new authors experiment with these, but it’s worth bearing in mind expectations of written dialogue evolved to aid the understanding of the audience.
Legitimate use of slang terms establishes time-period, location, even the socioeconomic status of the character using it. However, writers using this technique can easily go overboard.
Poor use of slang in a character’s dialogue backfires when the author doesn’t typically use these terms in real conversation. Too much research, too, can undermine any impression of casual use. If a writer considers visiting a prison to ask what one of their “prison slang” terms mean, then they probably shouldn’t be attempting to use it.
The point of slang terms is to convey a duality of meanings, specific to a narrow cultural context. To borrow an excellent example from Janice Hardy’s post on the construction of made-up slang terms:
“In the tragically short-lived, early ‘90s teen soap opera Swans Crossing, the 14-year-old leads referred to adults as “grownies.” (Grown-ups who make you groan with their unfair rules.)”
Most slang terms have three meanings: the literal meaning, the accepted meaning, and the emotional meaning. The emotional meaning is usually created either by inclusion or exclusion (the group who know and use the word, and the groups that don’t) and they carry with it praise or disdain.
In this example, “grownies” has several. Go to town on this with a close read and see how many can be found. Do the same with historical slang terms and dig up the etymology. There is no better way to learn how slang really works than to do some digging into how a particular word or phrase came into being!
There are several exceptional posts currently available on when and how to use it in fiction. Really, what else can be said? They’re wonderful enough to include here and not just down with the resource links at the bottom of the page.
The instruction included in these posts is sound and classy. However, writers (especially young or new ones) often scatter profanity in their work for the simple reason that they can. No matter what level an author reaches in their career writing, even if it’s several years into writing as a hobby, thrill from the truth of absolute power on the page! This is the same exciting power a kid feels when they write that curse word they’re not allowed to say!
Honestly, no one can say not to use it. It’s the author’s prerogative. Still, the conventions mentioned earlier should be acknowledged and respected to some degree in order to increase appeal. Whatever goes on that page to be read by others should be carefully weighed for meaning, purpose, effectiveness, and strength. It’s not a simple question of always use it, or never use it, but it should be respected as a tool, not a toy.
Accents and Dialect
Conveying spoken language via written symbols is a marvel and wonder of civilization. Just wow. So who could resist the idea of communicating the huge variety of spoken inflections by using simple phonetics?
Show some caution here too, respecting the risk a writer takes in sounding both inauthentic and disrespectful (not to mention a bit juvenile) if it’s done poorly. For how-to guides and tips, check the resource links below. Other authors have been vocal on this point, as the skill of dialect use in dialogue makes a difference so big, it can be compared to a child’s muddy finger painting vs. a glorious professional mural.
The tradition of employing phonetic spelling and punctuation to create an almost audible accent goes back decades, and its popularity has shifted in those years. In the last 100 years alone, vernacular words/spellings in the name of authentic speech has come in and out of fashion several times. These days, especially with the difficulty of political correctness hanging over every published word, writing in dialects and accents can easily be seen as offensive and prejudicial, if not carefully couched in a work with more widely acceptable messages.
As with all of these toys, they’re actually tools. Use them with respect and care, for the right reasons, in the right places. Do a little reading, especially of authors who use these effectively in successfully published works. Yes, experimenting and failing are great for learning. But in the case of these dialogue techniques, it’s best to crash and burn in drafts and critique groups, not in the rating section of a book’s Amazon listing.