Writing Authentic Dialogue: Handling Dialect & Jargon–and Getting Outside Your Own Language Background, by Jack Smith

Great fiction almost always includes great dialogue. As with drama, we get to know characters by what they say and by what others say about them. If the dialogue is flat, the characters will be flat. If the dialogue seems off, or not believable or real, we won’t trust the characters as authentic beings.

Grant Tracey, author of three story collections and editor of the North American Review, emphasizes the importance of dialogue in solid character development: “Dialogue is about giving characters space to breathe, to step out from the author’s controlling voice to speak from a real authentic place of their own. Through dialogue characters are at their most autonomous and free.” It’s this distinct speaking voice, in the larger context of the story’s narrative voice, that fiction writers need to master

Writing dialogue of course presents many challenges, especially to authors whose characters tend to come from diverse backgrounds. Speech patterns vary from region to region of the country—and the world. Characters from different ethnic groups and social classes speak differently. Different trades have their own jargon. To create authentic characters and authentic-sounding dialogue, writers can sometimes depend on their own background or experience, at other times on research of various kinds, and imaginative powers.


Robert Garner McBrearty, winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, likes “doing ‘Texans.’” He grew up with that language on his “ear and mind” and has a feel for handling the regional speech patterns. Still, he emphasizes, there’s some skill involved—you have to make sure you don’t overdo it. As an example he cites his story “Episode,” the title story of his winning collection, which has a “distinct Texas flavor in the dialogue.” The language is “fairly subtle,” says McBrearty. “They don’t sound like a bunch of hicks.”

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