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American dialogue

Posted: January 9th, 2010, 7:27 pm
by fionaw
I'm a Brit, and I'm struggling a bit with the three American characters I have in my WIP. I don't want them all to sound like cops (as most of the contemporary American stuff on my bookshelves is crime), but I'm aware that at the moment they all sound very English. They are:

Ed, 52M, Midwestern, ex-military, African-American
Carmichael, 13M, Midwestern, American father, Brazilian mother
Keisha, 22F, Iowa(possibly), deeply religious

Anyone out there who is confident with dialogue and would be willing to give some sections a read and advise me?

Or would it be more fun to post them here and you can pull the englishisms out and kick them around a bit? That might be useful for other writers, of course.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 9th, 2010, 7:57 pm
by Dankrubis
I'd suggest giving different books a read, depending on the accent. If one of your characters is from the American South, maybe read No Country For Old Men. If you're looking for New York, maybe Johnathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn would work (plus it, too, is a crime novel).

As far as midwest goes- I think that's the part of America that thinks they have no accent, so lots of books would work, really. Or maybe watch a few episodes of House. Hugh does a pretty decent job. :)

And feel free to post some of your stuff here, I'm sure people will give suggestions.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 9th, 2010, 9:11 pm
by fionaw
It's not the accent I'm after, precisely. It's the way people phrase things, the odd stuff you don't notice until you're immersed in another culture. I'm worried about ending up with a pastiche; this seems likely because I'm finding it harder than I anticipated.

I will look up those books, though it will take a while as everything has to be posted to me out here in the sticks!

I'll pull a couple of sections out of the WIP for people to chew on shortly. I think once I can start hearing the characters speak the right way in my head, it'll get easier.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 9th, 2010, 10:04 pm
by Nick
Try checking out different books and different shows, and talking to us Americans (not me, though, I tend to use my own language, that's kind of an awkward American English/British English/Scots/Latin/whatever-the-hell-pops-into-my-brain blend). Another good thing to remember is there are very different dialects just between small spaces. I live in the 'burbs of Philly, so we pretty much use the Philadelphia dialect. Go one county out and the Philadelphia dialect pretty much disappears, though. This holds true of a lot of states and cities, really -- different dialects even fairly close. Honestly it holds true of anywhere. I spend most of my vacation time in the UK, and I've noticed pretty sharp differences in accent, phrasing, etc. from places fairly close to one another. Noticed it on trips to all sorts of foreign countries. Again, just try talking to us and reading stuff set in different areas. Shows and movies can be a good gauge, but only for certain parts of the Americas, though I doubt anywhere for the Midwest. So, yeah, best advice I can offer really is all right there. Will return if I think of anything, but again, best I can think of. I picked up the groundwork of my different dialects and accents just from watching and reading a lot of stuff from the respective regions, and filled in the gaps on visits and speaking to friends from those regions. Basically, talk is good. And I'm repeating myself for the umpteenth time. Shutting up now.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 1:08 am
by ebradmon
What's a Midwesterner eh? I'm a Denver-ite (true Midwesterner, as we ARE in the middle of the country.) But people in say Saint Louis, and such, call themselves Midwesterners because everything West of the Mississippi is Midwest. TRUST ME, you put us thin air types in a room with them-all and have us open our mouths and there would be no mistaken that we here at altitude are a different lot -no?

Even the way we dress is different. The Denver-ite would have a sunburn, dry skin, flat hair and some sort of sporting equipment on them (like running shoes or hiking pants) or be dressed up for a night out in jeans. The person from Texas (also a Midwesterner - but kind of a different country) Would have BIG hair, big purse, boots, and a big old personality about mess-en with them.

See - might want to pin-point where the person is from to get more about them - there is A LOT of land out west and the people are all rather defined from region to region.

My advise - go check out past video's of Globe Trekker. (I think you get that show in the UK right? We use to get it in Singapore.) They have shows on traveling out west that would give you an idea of how the different groups dress, act and talk. (And some of the hosts are from the UK so they point out the differences in cultures.)

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 1:14 am
by Nick
ebradmon wrote:What's a Midwesterner eh?
Well, according to the Census Bureau, it would be something rather like:


Personally I'm not entirely sure I would classify Kansas or Missouri as part of the Midwest...but there she is.

And yes I did read the rest of your post. Very valid points and good suggestion. I just couldn't resist doing the above.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 1:20 am
by Kaitlyne
There's still a big difference between American and British English. Whether you're talking Midwesterner or New Yorker, they're still going to sound American. If you've got a character asking for a "kitchen roll" instead of a paper towel, or a character say, "He's so pissed" and they don't mean angry, that's very obviously British. Even some of the grammatical structures. I can't think of a really good example right now, but I know when my British friends say it, I always notice. I think unless you're trying to have a very specific accent (Brooklyn or something), it's okay to just sound "American" in general. I don't see what would be wrong with just posting a bit of dialogue here and having someone point it out. I definitely think if something like that is done it's good to ask a native to look at it to make sure it sounds natural or doesn't fall into stereotypes. :)

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 1:49 am
by fionaw
Problem is, I don't want to get too bogged down in research - though the characters need some background, the point is that they are marooned in the Amazon after a plane crash and trying to wak out. The story centres on another (english) character, and his wife in the UK who believes he is dead.

The other characters don't have to be perfect representations of their individual origins, they just have to be recogniseably American and not say/do anything that jars with their background.

It was interesting to review my bookshelves to look for something that might help - I have quite a lot of American fiction but not much that is really contemporary (and I just discovered that someone didn't return my copy of The Corrections). I've found the '98 Pushcart anthology, Zopetrope and Granta anthologies, Fear and Loathing plus Postcards from the Edge. A somewhat curious collection. I have a lot that's been published recently, but is set in the past - not a lot of help. Still, I'll post the first couple of chunks and y'all can tell me what you think I should do.

Quick summary:
Ed- US
Perry - Scot
Olive - English
Keisha - US

‘You know,’ Ed said, when they stopped for a rest the next morning, ‘I gave myself this holiday as a present for surviving my divorce.’ He laughed. ‘My ex-wife will probably be muttering something about karma in a couple of days. She’ll decide it’s the universe giving her what she wanted.’

‘From where I’m sitting,’ Perry said, ‘the universe looks pretty bloody indifferent.’

‘How long were you married?’ Olive said.

‘Twenty-nine years. Most of it I spent in the army. It was only when I came out that everything fell apart. I suppose it was the sort of marriage that couldn’t really cope with us being together every day. I should’ve seen it coming, though. When I was home on leave, within a week I was longing to get away. The house was full of crystals and incense and her crazy friends, chanting and talking to the dead. Drove me nuts.’

‘Have you been out of the Army long?’

‘Couple of years. The last three I sat behind a desk anyway. Not fit for active service.’ He shrugged. ‘They decided I couldn’t cope with week-long treks in the jungle.’
Stephen didn’t see Keisha step off the path, but he heard her scream. He spun round, saw her stagger backwards, her arm clutched across her chest.

‘A snake,’ she screamed. ‘It bit me! It bit me!’

Perhaps foolishly, Ed pounded back towards her. ‘Where is it?’

‘On the tree,’ she pointed.

They all stopped, frozen, while Ed scanned the tree and surrounding bushes. ‘It’s gone now,’ he said. ‘Let me look at your arm.’

There were two small puncture marks, just above her elbow.

‘What did the snake look like?’ Perry inspected the bite.

‘I don’t know,’ Keisha said, between sobs. ‘It was sort of brown, and speckled. I only saw it just before it bit me. And then I was too busy getting away. Was it poisonous?’

‘I don’t know,’ Perry admitted. ‘It could be.’

‘Why can’t you do something?’ Keisha shrieked. ‘I could be dying!’

‘Can’t we cut it, get rid of the poison that way?’ Olive asked.

‘That doesn’t work,’ Ed said. ‘It’s just an urban myth, or rather, a jungle one. You’d be more likely to die from the cuts getting infected than the snakebite. Especially as we’re not even sure it was poisonous.’

‘Do something!’ Keisha screamed.

Perry took hold of her gently. ‘Keisha, there isn’t anything we can do. Making holes in you isn’t going to help. We just have to keep going, and hope it wasn’t poisonous. Come on, you will die if you just stand here having hysterics. We’ve got to keep going.’

Keisha gathered herself for another wail, but before she could make a sound, Ed grabbed hold of her, knocking Perry’s hand away.

‘Keisha!’ His shout made them all jump. ‘Enough of this! You have to get a grip, and you have to keep walking,’ he yelled, shaking her. ‘No whining, no excuses.’

Stunned into silence, Keisha just gaped at him.

‘Come on,’ he said more gently. He took her by the hand, pulled her along with him. The others fell in behind him, Stephen and Perry exchanging glances with raised eyebrows.

They covered maybe another kilometre, and stopped for a rest. Keisha was still sniffling, but she hadn’t complained and had kept up with them. Perry checked her arm again. From where Stephen was sitting, the bite looked bruised and red, but nothing more.

‘Will I be all right?’

Perry lifted her chin with one hand. ‘I don’t know. I wish there was something I could do.’

‘God won’t let me die,’ she said. Uncertainty quivered in her voice.


‘He won’t!’ She pulled away from him.
Please note this is still at draft stage - I know the dialogue is clunky!

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 11:03 am
by taylormillgirl
I think you did quite well. The only thing that stood out to me was "holiday." An American would call it a vacation.

As for Keisha, you could give her a unique non-swear expletive since she's religious. For example, instead of "Oh, shit!" she could say "Oh, sugar!" A lot of my super-religious friends find creative ways to substitute curses.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 3:12 pm
by Dankrubis
I agree with Taylor, aside from the holiday thing, everything looks pretty decent.

I wonder- it's real tiny differences like that (taking a holiday vs. a vacation) that would take forever to learn. Maybe you should do your best, then have an American read your first draft and have him/her pay special attention to the dialogue. Just a thought.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 10th, 2010, 10:24 pm
by Kaitlyne
This might just be because I'm reading it out of context, or I could be thinking I'm misreading it but really I'm not.
‘Twenty-nine years. Most of it I spent in the army. It was only when I came out that everything fell apart. I suppose it was the sort of marriage that couldn’t really cope with us being together every day. I should’ve seen it coming, though. When I was home on leave, within a week I was longing to get away. The house was full of crystals and incense and her crazy friends, chanting and talking to the dead. Drove me nuts.’
I'm thinking when you say, "Came out" you mean "when I left the army." I had to read that four times, though, because my first thought was you meant "come out of the closet." And in this context, I really had to question it. I might be that you meant it that way, but when I see the phrase, "I came out," my first thought is in the out of the closet sense. If what you're really saying is, "When I left the army," then I'd say switch it to, "got out," or "It wasn't until I was discharged..." or something like that, just to avoid the confusion.

Other than that and the "holiday" thing it's fine. I think as long as you avoid any of the Britishisms that we don't use in America it'd be okay. (This makes me think of watching Torchwood or something and having Jack say something along the line of, "These are good chips," that just is so bizarre because he's speaking in the right accent, but the word sounds strange. ;))

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 11th, 2010, 6:06 am
by fionaw
Aaagh! I should have spotted the vacation/holiday thing myself!

This is why I need another pair of eyes. there's stuff I know is different in the US, yet I can't spot it in my own writing.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 11th, 2010, 6:11 am
by Kaitlyne
If it makes you feel better, I had accidentally written, "btw" into my story and didn't catch it for three drafts...finally someone else pointed it out to me. :D

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 11th, 2010, 9:08 am
by Seamus
Decent start. I have to say that I know what you mean about them sounding a bit British. Sadly (for my side of the pond), the English may be too proper for most American conversations. A young religious Midwesterner, like Keisha, will have an almost non-stop super-ego. In dialogue, I find that comes out by perpetually saying things like, "My mother said that if you got a bite like this, you're supposed to . . . " or "Reverend Tooms told me that in dark times like this I should pray psalm XX for strength." It might be the dynamic of such a person (I'm related to many of them) would be that other characters are really conversing with all the parental figures that she is channelling than with the actual girl.

As for the ex-military, in addition to dumbing down the English (again, with apologies to my entire country), his dialogue should be transformed to nearly all declarative sentences. Instead of enjoining others to buck up, a military guy would state opinion as fact, state direction as "what we are going to do." When faced with the snake episode, a military guy would say, "We're all going to remain calm here. Now, the most common snakes around here are, XXXX. If we don't have a fix on the type that bit you, we're going to have to assume the worse. In these situations, the best thing to do is . . . "

Hope this is helpful. I'd be glad to read some things, since dialogue is a passion of mine. I'm not sure how we would safely exchange email addresses in this forum, though.

Re: American dialogue

Posted: January 11th, 2010, 9:24 am
by Kaitlyne
I don't think being a Midwestern religious girl makes her have a super-ego. In fact, Midwesterner's are stereotypically more humble than most groups if you were going for that, but I think it's really, really, wrong to claim that she's going to have a super-ego based on where she lives. She might be a totally sweet, polite girl. It all depends on her personality, and this is just way too stereotypical for my tastes. I suppose I might be biased because I'm someone who went to college in the Midwest, but I do find it a bit offensive to make a claim like this. Some of the nicest people I've ever met were religious people in the Midwest.