Friday, April 16, 2010

Accents and Cultural Speech Patterns

When writing dialogue we strive to create distinctive voices for characters and to capture the flavor of natural speech. In real life accents and cultural speech patterns are two things that really stand out. They can be useful in screenplay dialogue as well, but must be used with care.

People don’t speak in proper grammar and your dialogue should reflect that. Screenplays often use words like “gonna” to mimic the way people actually talk. And dialogue like…

He done went down to the crick and got hisself eaten up by one of them crocodiles.

…can really add flavor to your characters if done well. English teachers might faint reading that, but it certainly suggests a strong voice.

Accents can do the same. Of course any line that’s written in standard grammar can be delivered by an actor in a variety of accents. But we have the option of phonetically spelling out the accent to capture the effect on the page. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Ahm gohn tell y’all about a little thing cahlled dignahty.”

The key here, though, is discretion. It’s much easier to listen to an accent than to read one spelled out phonetically. What can add charm at first can quickly grow tiresome – especially over a whole script. Consider the following exchange between two fictional New Englanders:

“Ahm pretty soah. Those new instructahs at the gym are slave drivahs.”

“Ayuh. But a wagah they leave befah the fahst nath’eastah.”

“Maybe you bettah take the oppahtunity to take a class befah then.”

“Exercisin’ is yaw cawse, not mine.”

Exhausting to read, isn’t it? Imagine that for 110 pages. Throwing in one phonetically accented word every couple lines would give us the idea without making our head hurt.

Better than accents is capturing the speech of a certain culture. It can give a real sense of place and class (note that people of different classes in the same place often speak quite differently.) This was used brilliantly in Fargo (written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) to capture North Dakota. Here’s a brief exchange from that script:

Ya got the car?

Yah, you bet. It's in the lot
there. Brand-new burnt umber

Yeah, okay. Well, siddown then.
I'm Carl Showalter and this is
my associate Gaear Grimsrud.

Yah, how ya doin'. So, uh, we
all set on this thing, then?

Sure, Jerry, we're all set. Why
wouldn't we be?

Yah, no, I'm sure you are. Shep
vouched for you and all. I got
every confidence in you fellas.

The Coens captured a bit of the accent by using the occasional “yah” and “fellas” but kept it very subtle. Then they captured the speech patterns of North Dakota with phrases like, “Yah, you bet” and “all set on this thing, then.”

Clueless (written by Amy Heckerling) does the same thing by including words and phrases like “totally,” “outie,” and “I’m like…” to capture the speech of Beverly Hills teens. Fried Green Tomatoes (screenplay by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski) uses phrases like, “bless her sweet little old heart” and “a heap of trouble” and “what in the name of Christmas” to capture a specific time and place in the South.

Done badly this kind of thing can feel cliché or stereotyped or gimmicky. If you’re not writing about a world you know personally you probably need to do some research. Ideally you go spend time with the kind of people whose voice you’re trying to capture. At the very least, dig up some audio or video recordings. Jot down colorful idioms and turns of phrase that you can sprinkle into your dialogue.

It’s important for screenwriters to remember that a screenplay is not a finished product; it is a guide for making a movie. The actors will add their skill to the dialogue, doing the accents needed. Hopefully they do them well – if not, nothing you write will save them.

When you’re writing your dialogue consider the reader. Use idiom and phrasing to give a sense of place and culture and sprinkle phonetic accents in with care to capture the flavor of speech. Then leave the rest to the actor.


Sanket said...

Good read, but didn't enjoy as much as other posts.
How do professional writers survive who haven't had any hit yet?
Can someone really make living as a screenwriter?

Doug Eboch said...

Actually, hits aren't necessary to earn a living from screenwriting. It's one of the few types of writing where you can sell bunches of stuff without any of it ever getting produced (as opposed to writing novels, for example, where when a publisher buys a manuscript you can be pretty sure a bound version will eventually be available for sale).

Of course screenwriting is enormously, enormously competitive. To make a living you need to be prolific, persistent, talented, hard working, at least a little lucky and a good businessperson. And probably a few other things that I'm not thinking of just now. Plus, it takes time. It took me several years before I could quit my day job.

But yes, there are several thousand people making livings as screenwriters right now. All of them started out as not screenwriters.

Nemo deNull said...

Just the info I needed to confirm what I just 'figured out' yesterday while polishing a trilogy of scripts. A couple of my characters definitely require accents in their dialogue and I sensed it was overdone in the actual writing. I've found adapting from novel writing to screenwriting a bit daunting but once you get out of the rhythm of telling and into showing, it flows along much better. Instinctively I'd begun writing the 'essence' of the accents rather than the phonetics as, guess what...I got annoyed myself by the written-in accents. Your article was very helpful and validating.