Episode 15: Dialogue & Dialect

On October 20th we welcomed Sharon May into the studio, an Appalachian writer and member of the SCWA Columbia II chapter. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor

Sharon May, fiction writer and English instructor

Theme for the day

Dialogue and Dialect

Link to the Podcast


  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: Dialogue and Dialect
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life
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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Segment 1

So for several weeks we did the genres: science fiction, mystery, romance. In each genre discussion we talked about the conventions, what the reader expects of them.

Savannah Frierson had a great phrase for it: Your Contract with the Reader

Earlier in our broadcast history, we talked about some mechanics like selecting a point of view, delivering exposition, and worldbuilding in fantasy novels. This is the first in what I imagine will be a few episodes on Dialogue.

So let’s get the basics out of the way:

Dialogue is speech. It’s two or more characters saying something out loud. To one another.

There are some mechanics to dialogue like using quotation marks and starting a new paragraph when the speaker changes.

And some common mistakes in punctuation that novice writers make.

And then there are the rules. And there are about a dozen blogs who deliver rules.

9 Rules for Writing Dialogue says that if it sounds like real-world conversation, you’ve gone horribly wrong. Discuss. Some other included rules: It should be in conflict, it should drive the story, and it should be there for a reason.

In How to Write Dialogue, the Jericho writers offer this advice: Keep it tight, keep it oblique — then gives an Aaron Sorkin example which, come on, is just unfair. He’s the greatest writer of dialogue since Hemingway. But let’s talk about what it means for your dialogue to be oblique.

And then this article on the 5 Types of Dialogue Your Novel Needs. Who doesn’t love a list?

  1. Introducing key characters.
  2. Showing important conflicts between characters.
  3. For telling characters apart.
  4. Showing characters’ inner conflicts.
  5. Revealing plot details/points and building tension.

Segment 2

So we selected this topic because of Sharon’s blog post on Dialect which is coming out on Sunday, October 21st on the Columbia II blog.

You made some good points about dialect. Give us some of that.

Let’s talk about the different uses of dialect (character building, setting and environment, creating misunderstandings and therefore conflict).

There are some rules around dialect, too.

From Writer’s Digest:

  • Use key phrases to “tune” the reader’s ear to the dialect.
  • Use foreign words and phrases sparingly but without confusing the reader by providing important information in a language they won’t understand.

And some Quick & Dirty Tips from Grammar Girl like avoid phonetic spellings because most adults read by the word, not by the letter, and stumbling on a word they don’t know can be confusing; or, in worst case scenarios, derogatory to a specific race or culture.

  • Know the grammar rules for the dialect – good example given by Grammar Girl is the use of “be” before a verb that is a persistent behavior in African American English. Such has, “He be sleepin on the couch” as in he always does, or “he sleepin on the couch” as in he is doing that right now. Subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Are there rules like that for Appalachian English?

An argument about advice to lighten your dialect or to be strategic with it. There’s a case to be made that while authentic dialect can alienate the reader, sometimes that’s the effect you want.

Segment 3

Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life and the way we read as writers and learn more about the craft by experiencing the best (and worst) of it.

Conroy tells about his time in Paris and befriending a Japanese man and records the Japanese man’s dialogue with a heavy accent that could sound offensive if you imagine Conroy telling you the story, but if you imagine the guy actually speaking, it’s not too-too bad.

So how do we work around that?

What books have you read with really well done dialogue? Why was it so compelling? What books have you read with really poorly done dialogue? Why was it so bad?

Segment 4

What are you reading now?

How’s the dialogue in that selection?

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