For example, when one character says he’s “going out for a night on the town” and another says he’s “heading uptown for the evening,” those are differences in diction. When a character says “there ain’t no fog out thar,” that’s dialect.
Diction and dialect work well for telling anecdotes, because the characters are not constrained by the back and forth of dialogue and can freely express themselves. However, using dialect to show a particular time in history or to make a geographical reference should be done so in a careful manner. Let’s explore:
Here is an excerpt from Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847:
“Running after t’ lads, as usuald!” croaked Joseph, catching an opportunity, from our hesitation, to thrust in his evil tongue. “If I war yah, maister, I’d just slam t’ boards i’ their faces all on ‘em, gentle and simple! Never a day ut yah’re off, but yon cat o’ Linton comes sneaking hither; and Miss Nelly, shoo’s a fine lass!”
It is quite obvious Emily Bronte didn’t have the use of Microsoft Word’s grammar check; otherwise, most of her manuscript would have looked like a lit up Christmas tree! Kidding aside, Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece and is akin to the work of the great Romantic Poets. However, outside of readers who love this style of writing, I would venture to say it would be difficult to sell a book today written with such dialect because most modern readers don’t want to deal with it.
I am not saying it can’t be done. If a certain scene calls for its usage, then using it in small snippets may be a powerful way to get a message across. But, if the character is a main character, instead of them speaking throughout the book with dialect which can be difficult to read, try using diction instead. It can be one of the best ways to overcome regional differences in speech.
Take for example; you have a conversation between two characters. One of the characters has just moved into a small New England town while the other has lived there their whole life. By giving the local character the clipped speech of a New Englander, you’ll make it easier to differentiate between the two characters. Furthermore, if you only give hints here and there of their dialect and then use diction instead, like using a single word like nope in a sentence, you’ll give enough clues that the reader will hear the two characters differently. One author who comes to mind that uses this technique quite well is Stephen King.
So the next time you are writing a story in which you want to differentiate between characters, try playing around with diction vs. dialect and discover a writing style that suits your story’s characters! Who knows, you just may be the next Emily Bronte or Stephen King!
Until next time (oh, and don't forget to feed the fish!),
Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!
The Unknown Author