Skip to main content

Dialogue: Writing Dialects and Accents

By Michael Schilf · January 22, 2011

Your characters come from all over, and it makes sense that they speak a particular dialect or with a specific accent. Knowing these details adds another intricate layer to your characters; however, the execution of delivering a clearly defined language or distinctive mode of pronunciation is not for the screenwriter to perfect. Leave that to your actors.

Your job is simply to clarify the character’s nationality, dialect, or accent, but write the bulk of their dialogue in Standard English, not the phonetic version of the dialect or accent that the character actually speaks. The main reason for this has everything to do with turning pages. The screenwriter’s job is to make the reader’s job as easy as possible. You want your script to be a smooth read – a literal page-turner – and if you write their dialogue phonetically, you absolutely will bog down your reader.

Take this as an example. Imagine your character grew up in a mining town in rural Minnesota near the Canadian border, and he tells his mining foreman this:

“Oh, yeah, you betcha der, chieftain. Goin’ down wit dat der new fella, don’tcha know, and we’ll git dat der whole kit and kaboodle up the shaft der lickety split, ya know. ”

Now that’s a mouthful, and definitely not an easy read. Here’s the translation:

“Oh, yeah, chief. Going down with that new guy, and we’ll get everything up the shaft right away.”

But here’s the problem. If you write the dialogue phonetically, it’s interesting and rich with complexity yet much more difficult to read. If you write it entirely in Standard English, however, you lose all the uniqueness and flavor, and unfortunately, the dialogue becomes forgettable. Solution: moderation.

It’s okay to toss in a few phonetic words here and there to highlight the accent or dialect, but use it sparingly. Moderation will save you from frustrating your readers, whom in a very real sense are the gatekeepers to your screenplay’s future:

“You betcha, chief. Going down with the new fella, ya know, and we’ll get the whole kit and kaboodle up the shaft lickety split.