Whenever I travel to the good ol’ US of A, there are several moments every day when this happens:

Maybe I’m ordering a coffee or hot dog. Something American.

‘All right mate?’ I’ll say.

‘I’m sorry. What?’

‘Are you all right?

‘Oh, I see! You’re British.

But then when I come back home, I’ll be talking to a mate – sorry, buddy – and I’ll say ‘Meet me on sidewalk outside the bar.’

‘The fuck, Jack? If you mean the pavement outside the pub, yeah, I’ll see you there in twenty. Bell end.’

So I’m sifting through my second draft and all these phrases are starting to creep their way in. The trouble is that they date worse than Jeffrey Dahmer.

Remember ‘rad’? Shortening of ‘radical.’ Popularised in the UK in the late ‘80s by either Teenage Mutant Ninja Hero Turtles or Brad from Neighbours (I’m unsure who had the greatest influence on the youth at the time). If I had written this novel in 1989, would it be peppered with the use of ‘rad’? Possibly.

Or if I had written it in 2011, would I use the word ‘winning’ constantly? Probably not, because I always thought Charlie Sheen was a twat. Sorry, twot.

A constant source of irritation is the incorrect overuse of the word ‘epic’.

‘Had a sandwich for lunch. Lots of tomatoes in it. Was totally epic.’

‘Finger-banged your dog last night. It was epic.’

So while I try to steer away from popular slang, I find a smattering of it can breathe a little life into a character.

I enjoy the odd, mostly phonetic, Irvine Welsh novel every now and then, but unless it’s done well, it can just be plain distracting.

I dunno. I’m on the fence about this one. Which is strange from me.

I’m in danger of making my narrator sound like some dick from Made In Chelsea by sterilising his speech. But alternatively, I don’t want it to read like a crap, self-congratulatory monologue from Snatch.

Any wisdom from you guys?


  1. It’s a very hard one to get right; made even harder by phonetics. Just think of the difference between the way northerners in England pronounce vowels and the way southerners do. Done well, it can definitely work for some characters. Of course, the point about using it is that it has to provide a contrast to something. If all your characters are French, obviously there’s no point in giving them all pseudo French accents, but you could drop a few colloquialisms for a touch of spice. It all depends. Then again, it can help give a sense of period, even for relatively contemporary … on the other hand … the more I think about it … you could give it a go … or give it a miss even.

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  2. Hmm. I think that unless you have a clear artistic reason for doing so, it’s a good idea to avoid attempting to represent the exact cadence and pronunciation of a character’s speech in text. Of course, Charles Dickens did it marvellously. Others, too, but it is rarely attempted and accomplished well.

    I think there are two key problems.

    One is that there are no standardised rules for the representation of accents in the written word – other than choosing one of the many phonetic alphabets, but that would probably be ridiculous as well as requiring the reader to learn it first. What looks as if it says one thing to you may sound quite different to the inner ear of your reader.

    The other problem is that reading the unexpected complexity of phrasing required by the attempt to convey a non-standard pronunciation can seriously slow up the flow of the story, which is death and destruction to a fiction writer. Confronted with a cipher of proliferating punctuation rather than comprehensible words, most readers will walk away rather than commit to the struggle.

    There are, however, several ways round this problem. One is to tell the reader how they should hear the person’s speech with a direct statement.For example: “Are we going out, then?” she said, her accent betraying her origins in the East End.

    The other is to suggest the accent with very sparse use foreign words. For example: “Please step this way, Monsieur.” Once we have established this fellow is French, you can write him in English and the reader will hear his accent just fine without further prompting.

    Often, the rhythm of a speech can be sufficient to suggest the accent.

    Whatever you decide, I would counsel minimalism, subtlety, a suggestion to the reader rather than a transcription of actual speech.

    Slang, unless you are intentionally evoking a period setting, should simply be avoided. Other than certain words which have stood the test of time ~ such as “wow” “cool” and so on ~ and are common enough to be understood by everyone who reads your work.

    That is my advice. Although I should now confess that this very morning I sold a short story in which the central character has a particular manner of speaking which is visually represented in the text with fictive slang and lots of apostrophes! I suppose it’s a case of knowing the rules so that you know when and how to break them.

    But as a last word, I’d say that the acid test is to ask yourself the question, “Does this help the reader become deeply involved with the character and her story?” If the answer is no, whatever it is, cut it out.

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  3. I think Austin is right, just a few hints work wonders. In my novel most of my characters are foreigners but if I dwelled on that, I would lose track of the story. So instead I allow a few words in their original languages to slip into the dialogues or remind the reader that they roll their Rs or something similar.
    I need to be extra careful about this because I’m French and English isn’t my first language. I constantly have French expressions popping into my mind and I have to refrain from translating them into English. Very frustrating! 🙂

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  4. I am a strange one. I tend to use a lot of different languages and foreign words in my novels. I don’t know that I use much slang really, although in my everyday speech I use a bit. But I give each of my characters very different speaking styles. Take the novel I am working on right now, Melody never uses contractions, she has a very formal speech style. So that is part of how I make them sound different. I am also not one for cussing in my novels, although I have one book, there is a character, and he just so happens to drop in words every now and again I would rather he didn’t!

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