Slang in Dialogue: Use It Sparingly

Note: I’m giving myself a quick autumn break this week, so am posting this shortie instead of the usual post and podcast. Enjoy!

It’s important for authors to get the nuances of slang in dialogue right. All our research into dialectal idiosyncrasies is time well spent if it means nailing the way a particular character speaks. Smart readers will always recognize phony speech patterns.

For example, readers of Young Adult fiction are notoriously good at spotting less-than-accurate character conversations. Because teen slang changes faster than almost any other part of our language, and because few adults know it as well as their young readers, YA writers work hard to get their dialogue right. But as in all genres, there’s such a thing as going overboard.

For example, I once read a paranormal novel written by someone who had obviously researched teen slang. She had the words and the nuances down pat. Her characters sounded just as you would expect high schoolers to sound. The only problem was that she let her mastery of slang in dialogue run her story right into the overkill zone. Nearly every line of dialogue in this short book contained some form of slang, often to the point of repetition. I imagine even teen readers were rolling their eyes when one of the characters said “dude” for the tenth line straight.

As with so many techniques in fiction, moderation is vital in dialect. This goes not just for slang—especially unfamiliar slang—but also for strange grammatical constructions and perhaps most importantly words purposely misspelled to reflect a character’s accent.

It’s hard to go wrong with moderation. When in doubt, always avoid overkill.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you use dialect or slang in dialogue in your current story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. “As with so many techniques in fiction, moderation is vital….” So true. I had a Scot in my last work, a screenplay entitled “The Fire Chaser,” and heavily researched Scottish speech patterns and common phrases, paying particular attention to sentence structure. Above all I tried to apply what I learned sparingly. Ran it by a native Scot, who thought it was great and only suggested a couple of idioms that could be added.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. This is especially important when dealing with a dialect in which it’s tempting to phonetically spell out the accent. A little goes a very long way.

      • Suzi Holland says

        THANK YOU! I’m so glad you covered this issue! I’ve been asking this question for months with no answers. My protagonist is Hispanic. When her x husband yells at her, she yells back in SPANISH. So far, I’ve held her back to just three short episodes in my entire manuscript. Can I relax now? Suzi

  2. It’s been said that the more you can write for one type of reader, the more you lose focus on other readers. I think there’s truth in that (if we remember that this kind of focus is separate from sheer writing quality), and this is a strong case of it.

    So we have to decide how deep in the slang rabbit-hole to go. Does the story need to grab the right reader that completely, or maybe a bit less so you’re leaving room for readers that aren’t like that but might be pulled in by the story and want to be immersed? Or is it more for flavor and not worth going beyond that?

    And even then, slang in print just looks weird (if only because we don’t see it much), and it’s a trainwreck if we aren’t sure we’ve got it right. *And* it dates the story, fast. So even a story with all the best reasons to embrace it still needs to be more than careful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is such a good insight–and it goes far beyond niche slang. Reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s supposed quote: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Nothing wrong with choosing to write for a broad category over a niche one, or vice versa, but the author will do well to acknowledge the intention.

      • Yet in A Clockwork Orange, the gang of thugs spoke entirely in their own tongue, using words that nobody in the audience knew (unless you had read the book.) Even Alex the narrator spoke in their Nadsat language. There’s something to be said for making the audience work just a little bit.

        Of course, it’s a brilliant book, by a brilliant author, and a movie directed by a brilliant director, so that’s something to remember too.

  3. My story is set in New York City on the Lower East Side, so I use a lot of New Yorkese, as well as Spanish dialog and slang. I try not to overdo it, since I know how annoying it is to read foreign dialog without a footnote translating it (something I intend to do when I’m published). But the majority of my characters are Latino, and not all Latinos use the same slang, so I have to tread carefully between my own ethnic (Puerto Rican) and the various others represented, mainly Mexicans and Cubans, some Dominicans, and so on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This sounds wonderfully rich and complex!

    • I recently read a short story where the author used footnotes to translate slang. It knocked me out of the story every time. Think of Star Wars Chewbacca and R2D2… their “dialogue” needed no captioning.

      • Footnotes don’t belong in fiction, IMHO. I have a few Apache words in my book, and what I do is italicize them, followed by a direct translation. “Ashoog. Thank you.” I can’t italicize here, but that’s how I see it done almost everywhere.

        FLTOG only put minimal “accents”–just enough to keep their dialogue distinct. I read a great book that had fabulous characters, and one of them had a thick Southern drawl that the author wrote in for every line she had. It was INFURIATING. It turned her into a caricature

      • Here’s a case of unneeded “captioning” working well! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0m4rcx0of4

  4. Dude! You are so right on! This post is so rad. I’ve got to 23 skidoo now, but enjoy your vaycay!

  5. I’m a teenager myself, so whenever I write anything, I automatically include my everyday slang every once and a while. I guess it’s a neat thing, really. Words I use a lot include: cool, neat, weirdo, seriously, dudette, and a few others. Just use them lightly, because in reality, no one uses as much slang as Bill and Ted (trilogy of movies),

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always great when we can draw on our own experience for characters.

    • Dude!

      I’ve been around for a long time. I’m 77 and some of the words (all but one) that you used as an example of current slang, I was using when I was a teenager. Do you hang out with old people?

      • Old school is the in thing now, seriously. The latest fashion trends include retro like platform shoes, wrap dresses and over-the-knee-boots. Same with hair. I actually feathered my bangs a few weeks ago! 🙂 Maybe a lot of in crowd teens use the latest talk -but not all teens are in crowd and up to date. And old is the new trend. Just go check out the junior’s section in JC Penny. It’s sick -and I mean that as a good thing.

        And I don’t hang out with old people. XD

  6. Yes, I had to deal with this in a scene in my second novel, “The Sturgeon’s Dance.” The main character visited a secondary character with a heavy vernacular. I realized I had to tone it down after I wrote all of the secondary character’s speech mostly phonetically, and the advice of others encouraged me to maintain a few “misspellings” consistently (for vocal “flavor”) and to return the bulk of the speech to standard English. The result was a dialogue that my blind friend, who was a professional medical transcriptionist, had no trouble understanding as she listened to the scene on her computer, even with its electronic monotone voice.

    I tend to do this a lot, whether it be dialogue, description, or narrative. I go whole-hog on it as a rough draft, pulling out all stops as they say, then calm it down, with editing, into prose that “rings true” (I hope) and reads easily.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I tend to think it’s very helpful to go “whole hog” in the first draft. I think it was James Michener who said, “The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the reader.”

  7. I’ve found having a variety of beta readers to be helpful when using slang. For my latest book, set in the 1980’s, I did use a certain amount of slang. My American beta readers had no problem with it, but my Canadian beta had no idea what a beard was. I figured my audience (I write M/M romance) would probably get it, but I realized the term was probably alien to my younger readers—and possibly my foreign readers. I made the definition of the term more obvious. It’s a global world. I’m grateful for my foreign readers and never want to estrange them.

  8. I definitely agree about using slang in moderation! I read a book years ago; it was pretty good but I can’t remember what the story was really about. What I remember is how annoying the tween girl character was who said “kewl!” in almost every single line. That was so distracting it ruined the whole book for me!

    • I know, right? They think it’s dope to pour tons of mispronounced words in there pretending it to be slang. In all honesty, it only confuses me (and I’m a teenager) and I end up having to reread it sometimes. I also hate it when the author makes up slang- like in a sci-fi or fantasy. It makes readers get cheesed-off (irritated).

  9. Mackenzie Littledale says

    I’ve written two short stories set in the Caribbean. The islands speak English, but it bends and sways.

  10. Deborah Garland says

    It’s so funny this came to me today. In my WIP I’ve made my heroine from Ireland and I’m neck deep in her accent and now I can’t get out! She doesn’t ‘think’ in the accent, but it’s in her dialogue. I definitely think I overdid it. But not sure how to tone it back without being inconsistent. It figures THIS is the book where my characters talk to each other. A lot. I have plenty of books to know I’m getting the phonetics right. In the end I don’t want it to be annoying to the reader. At the same time, how you do ignore it?

  11. This post reached me with impeccable timing: it’s the very issue I’m grappling with this week. I recently read a story where the author had done an incredibly convincing job with an Essex accent. It was right at the heart of what made the character impossible not to fall in love with. The author made it seem so effortless – deliberate misspellings and all. I was inspired to experiment with accents/slang in my own writing and have been gobsmacked by how tricky it is, even when treading very familiar ground!

  12. I had a very similar problem to using slang. In my book, Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus) has returned from India where he has been from age 12 to age 30. His first encounter with a fellow Israeli is with Yochanan the Baptizer (John the Baptist.) He struggles with his mother tongue, and I needed to have him using stilted speech, grasping for words. It was a bit painful to read, but I kept it down to 4 pages. It was almost too long at that. Here is how some of it reads:

    Finally, he said to them all in the same slow, staccato voice he had talked to Yochanan with a few moments earlier, “I have been away a very long time. I … not speak Hebrew or Aramaic for … many years, since I was twelve. Please help me as I learn once again.”

    “Where have you been?” one of the crowd asked.

    “In a land far to the—to the …” Yeshua pointed eastward. Someone said, “east.”
    “Yes, east. A land to the east of Israel, called India.”

  13. Personally I try to focus on voice, as in how formally or informally a character speaks, what kinds of words and grammar they use, etc. Then I might throw in a little slang or dialect for flavor, just to give the reader a better idea of how that character sounds. It doesn’t have to always be spelled out… literally.

  14. As teenager myself, I’ve noticed that a lot of peers use iconic phrases from the internet (twitter, vibe, tiktok etc…) to react to something.
    “My mom killed my abusive dad.”
    “And she’ll do it again ba ba.”
    Lol. It’s funky to write, but it’s a very real and growing trend, since it’s like the new pop culture referencing. I definitely don’t think it’s good in dialogue though.

    Modern language today is a bit scary in its rate of growth, since it’s now so deeply tied to the internet. Feels like after every conversation, I have to whip out the good old urban dictionary because there’s always a few new words. That being said, I don’t think it’s worth it to try to imitate today’s slang. It’s so deliberately made to be vague, fast-shifting and obnoxious, and it’s by a generation that pushes to isolate their humor from anyone older than 25. Any attempt of modern slang will look funny and try-hard once it’s formally written in like a book or a paper.

    The only thing I could see that still continues to realistically ground dialogue is cussing. Those four letter words are not trends or one hit wonders—they’re ingrained deep in the culture. Rich suburban kids, fellow youth members in church, kids from the streets… they all say those words so liberally. It doesn’t do much to distinguish a character, but it does make dialogue very realistic. And using it doesn’t sound like a “hello fellow kids” kind of attempt. Of course, overkilling it is always something to take note of. But there a great films like the Irishman where one of the characters said c*cksucker at least 12 consecutive times. Wonder how they made that work.

    • In the opening of one of William Safire’s books:

      “We must make up our minds what we mean by usage. If it be defined merely as the practice of the majority, we shall have a very dangerous rule affecting not merely style but life as well, a far more serious matter.”

      ~~ Quintillian, 1 AD

  15. Another point about slang and how quickly it changes is that unless you are writing a historical novel, use of slang will immediately date your writing. I recently reread a Dick Francis novel written in 1970. I adore Dick Francis, but he was 50, trying to write a young hippie character. The dialogue — “groovy,” “bread,” etc. — is painful to read today and I wonder how realistic it seemed at the time.

  16. Sharon Lippincott says

    Some time back I wrote a short story set in a Chinese restaurant and used gentle dialect in dialect with the immigrant owner/maitre d’ who seated and served us. A socially aware friend slammed me for stereotyping, lack of respect, etc,, but IMO, that story would not be authentic if I had this person speaking perfect English. The dialect was part of the truth of the story. It stayed on into publication and passed the critical eye of my editor.

  17. Good points. My novel is set In UK. Ever since I found a Cockney translator from the Internet, I’ve been nuts about the slang. But with Cockney it’s important to use it sparingly. Basically it’s more of its own language than a slang. I suppose that would go with all slangs and accents

  18. Joan Kessler says

    I agree. I have a difficult time reading Mark Twain. As mentioned in earlier comments, heavy slang and phonetic spellings take me out of the story. If I know that the character has an accent, I can fill it in on my own while reading. And you absolutely deserve some time off!

  19. This is especially hard for us Sci-Fi YA writers, since we basically have to come up with our own slangs and idioms that are appropriate for the time our story takes place in, and are also easy to assimilate by the reader and have a credible linguistic origin. You want to be able to use the dialogue and the interactions between characters to show their diversity and cultural differences, but the last thing you want is writing it in a way that takes too much of the reader’s attention.

  20. I even find it difficult to moderate adult casual conversation. Few people use the richness of the English language to enrich their everyday exchanges. The linguistic concept of register (level of formality) can be very loosy-goosy. While slang can be a good way to indicate lower register, I agree that trying to reflect accents in writing can, too easily, go awry. A basic effort at choosing an audience can be invaluable. Ye canna be sairten who’s lissnen and wot they ken.

  21. Karen Edwards Pierotti says

    I write in the Regency/Georgian era so do use a little bit of slang (cant) for authenticity, but use it sparingly and in such a way that readers will know what it means.

  22. Jim Porter, Sr. says

    I am working on a paranormal (not occultic) series in which the protagonist is a petite, All-American girl-next-door-turned-U.S Marine-military-police-officer. She engages with cryptid creatures in various settings and with various people. She is from Oklahoma and is an adopted member of the Aransa Tribe. (There’s no such tribe.) I have detected over the years that there seem to be three different Okie accents. But my protagonist and everyone she meets, even at her deployment post in Afghanistan, speaks normal, every day rushed American English with a few speech characteristics sprinkled in. Y’all, and so forth, I believe, need to be used sparingly. I have not used anything that would resemble tribal speak except one or two Ahos (means thank you in Kiowa) and some loan words from the Muscogee Creek. (The Aransas were once a protectorate tribe of the Muscogee Creeks. So the designation of one of the cryptids is an anglicized pronunciation of the Creek word for the creature. Yes, the Creeks actually have a tradition or history of encounters with the creature.) It is a temptation to add many Okie speech characteristics to the dialogue, but I have not done so. My only exception to overbearing speech characteristics is for a tiny Chinese teenager who is now the adopted daughter of one of the main characters. I worked for days and day, carefully researching what the speech of a Mandarin-speaking person who has come to live in America, would sound like, even consulting with Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking members of my church. Almost finally, in my research for the dialogue in my story, I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird to help me detect when I was drifting into superfluous regionally speech too often. In short, it’s been a challenge not to go whole hog ‘n’ silly when writin’ speakin’ for my folks.

  23. Nicole Brunskill says

    I was doing a beta reading on a friend’s first attempt at a new genre of writing. He normally wrote Steampunk and was attempting to write an urban fantasy targeted toward teenage girls. He used the word “squee” more times than I could count in just a portion of a paragraph. Now, I’m an adult woman, not a teenager, but I’m fairly certain even if I was a teenager I would have sooner died than used the word “squee”. But knowing that when he wrote the story (a few years ago) that word was a thing, I just told him that even though I wouldn’t have used the word personally if I we’re a teen, I still would recommend thinning out the usage because it’s way too much.

  24. For my historical fiction novel, a captain of the British Navy forced to turn pirate set in 1706 I researched dialogue, slang, you name it. But I made sure to differentiate between the that if the captain and his lifelong best friend versus that of the crew who grew up in a much lower economic and educational opportunity area and then with the real pirates and Colonial America. It was a pain, but fun, and readers, including authors, made note of the authentic dialogue. It was well worth it, even if I never try that again. 🙂

    Although, I’m working on a cozy mystery set in the South, but fortunately that’s where I’m from and taught in the high schools and was a manager in an inbound order center with college students. But you don’t realize how much you don’t listen until you try to write how they spoke.

    It is DEFINITELY a smart idea to pay attention to TV shows, Music Videos, songs, reality TV, although somewhat scripted, you can tell which parts are, and even go out in public. If you’re going for teen slang, got to sporting events, like a high school football game and sit next to the student section. Check online SM sites or even fan fiction written by teens.

  25. We live in America. I speak with Mexicans, Indians and occasionally go to the Russian supermarket. There are accents everywhere, and with the exception of dystopian novels with their invented vernacular, I really enjoy dialect, accent, slang–all of it! Bring it on.

    I’m reading Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.” Talk about southern dialect. Luke, who stutters. The Irish family he boards with at Harvard. It’s all there and it reads great.

    My editor just let me know the father of one of my main characters doesn’t sound British enough. Lord help me, I need to fix that but other than hopping on a plane to London and shaking down compete strangers, anyone have any ideas?

    • Maybe listen to some British radio, television shows, or movies?

    • Watch some videos by Dr. John Campbell on YouTube. He was a nurse teacher for 27 years and has an extensive collection of health videos. Lately, he has been covering the pandemic. My husband and I actually refer to him as dad because he’s so dadlike. He doesn’t use a lot of slang, but he does use some and you will probably pick up on his meter. Hope that helps!

  26. I’ve read a book that was a hundred percent dialect, and that was Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. And for some weird reason, I didn’t put the book down even though I had no idea what was going on most of the time (had to Google a lot as I read).

    Maybe that’s why art is so awesome. You could do something that people don’t recommend and still get away with it. If it works, it works, hey? Thanks for this post!

  27. I was taught to introduce slang, only, and then continue with everyday speech, giving a sense of the character’s heritage by allowing the reader to hear him speak, but then moving on to something far more readable. Maybe insert a mild reminder on occasion, but never to reproduce mispronunciations continuously.
    I remember my first attempt at reading Twain. As an avid and fast reader, I was flummoxed and never finished the assignment. Could not make heads or tails of it being very young. I enjoyed the attempt he made, but also was insulted that Twain would require me to sludge through all that. At that age, I knew very little about writing, but just didn’t like what he did, what he required of me.
    That is not the goal. We want to draw the reader in, include all necessary elements, and remove all barriers.

  28. One char in my WIP is an old hippie, and I find myself going back to trim out some of his hippie-isms — they don’t need to be in every line he speaks.

  29. Not every character will use the exact same slang terms, even in a group. Usually, each will put their own spin on slang terms and some will have a particular one they like and use it more, not to overkill of course.

  30. Dennis Strack says

    Great advice. When it comes to profanity in books and movies, I like that same advice. So many great movies and shows with the PG-13/TV-14/R/M ratings have a lot of profanity, and it does get annoying.

  31. Even though I’m in the process of writing an Urban Christian drama series, I still don’t use slang too much. If I do, it’s mostly for scenes with gang members in it or someone random off the street, but many of them use slang anyway, especially in the city. The majority of my cast didn’t make themselves a product of their environment, but an asset.

    Note: Please, keep doing your podcasts. Don’t quit. It’s okay.

  32. petespringerauthor says

    I’m wrestling with this issue right now with my current work in progress. It’s for tweens, so the kids use some slang, especially when they’re talking to other kids their age.

    By the way, I just ordered your book, Creating Character Arcs. It arrived today, and I’m excited to dig into it.

  33. I have characters with English as their 2nd or 3rd language and really want to make those who don’t speak it so well stand out more (one messes it up more when he’s cross). But, I’m also trying to use a readable, authentic sounding, Middle English historic voice. I’ve done some research, but haven’t found anything really helpful so I’m winging it and feeling rather lost : (. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Personally, I don’t try too hard to evoke an authentic Old or Middle English dialect. I think it works better for readability’s stake to stick to reasonably modern speech (no modern slang though, of course).

      • I really want to give a nice feel for the time period, yet not put people off by overdoing it or look like I was just trying to look ‘clever’ when I had no clue. I found some of your past posts on narrative voice and such, which helped me throw together a basic idea list on how I could ‘wing’ it.

        No contractions (wouldn’t, don’t, ain’t, it’s, shan’t, etc.)
        No contemporary slang (gonna, kinda, that’s totally cool, etc.)
        Consistently use more understandable/readable older words (methinks, thou, yonder, naught, wont, etc.) that I wish to ‘flavour’ my novel with
        Don’t bother trying to constantly use pointless olden grammar order (just write “I do not know” for “I know not”, and so forth)
        Research to check that character names (not custom made ones) are more suitable to the time period
        Use words (like fair, rude, silly, terrific, etc.) in the correct context for a medieval time period
        No wordiness (“After a pause, he opened his mouth to speak and said…”)
        Research and replace more modern words with suitable substitutes
        And, don’t try to nail all this while writing the first draft

        Are there any problems with this list or things I haven’t listed that should be there?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Sounds spot on to me. This is very similar to what I do.

          • Oh, good. But, one thing bothers me; I’ll lose important character voices developed in my first drafts (like a roguish, turncoat type sailor who is SO fun to write) if I go back to weed out any contractions and slang that just flowed from their personalities/backgrounds. Even a protagonist (with English as a 2nd tongue) will sound flat if I stop things (like g dropping) meant to portray lower class and a slight native accent. Are there ways to preserve such characters when I go back to edit?

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