Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #7: Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly

Welcome to the seventh in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Readers learn a lot about a character from the way he/she sounds. For instance, in a crime novel, you might have a southern cop, a New York mobster, and a street gangster interacting with one another. Each of them will have a different sound to their speech, which helps give the reader a sense of who these characters are.

One way to accomplish this is by using dialect. Often this involves clipped words and apostrophes. The language reads phonetically.

Patois, by the way, is a French word meaning, “regional dialect.”

For example, you might see “running” changed to “runnin’.” Some writers make that change for every such instance in a character’s speech. So, the southern cop’s dialogue would be full of “-ing” verbs ending with “-in’.”

Here are a couple of reasons this can be bad:

1. It’s hard to have an ear for dialect. Authentically capturing the sound of a type of character or even a geographical region is no easy task for a writer. You must develop an ear for it. It’s hard to bring the details of, say, the cop’s southern accent to the page in an authentic manner if you don’t have an ear for that specific dialect. It’s easier (and often more effective) to use sparse dialect to add flavor to the character’s sound.

Another consideration is that you don’t want to stereotype characters. Not only could this be offensive to some readers, but typically a character that is merely a “type” is one-dimensional. In other words, they are not realized as an individual human being. Give personal flare to your characters’ speech to bring each one to life, rather than relying on copious usage of dialect.

2. Many readers find too much dialect annoying. If the page is full of apostrophes, as Leonard described this problem, it becomes clunky reading. The reader must recreate all the dialogue in their head so that they can understand what the characters are saying. It can kill the pacing of your writing, especially in dialogue-heavy scenes, which are supposed to move quickly. We can prevent this problem by limiting our use of dialect.

Of course, none of this is to say you should never use dialect. It is a powerful tool when executed well and sparingly. Leonard’s point is simple: we just shouldn’t over-do it.

I like the way Mark Twain handled dialect. He would use it liberally at the beginning of his works, then gradually remove it as the story progressed.

The result? He was able to train his readers’ ears early in a work. Then, when he took out the dialect later, his readers still HEARD it, even though they weren’t reading it anymore! Twain figured out a method of using dialect without disrupting the flow of his writing. Genius!

So, go ahead and use dialect. But use it sparingly. And consider trying out Twain’s technique.

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