Fixin’ to Act Ugly – Using Slang and Dialects in Stories

 Fixin’ to Act Ugly

By Natalie Bright


Using Slang and Dialects in Stories

A visitor from Florida pointed out that everyone is “fixin’ to” do something or go somewhere. I’d never noticed that the term was used that often in the Texas Panhandle.  However, I am conscious of a Southern habit of using “ugly” as a verb. My mother always said, “We don’t say ugly things.” or “Stop acting ugly.” I cringed the first time I repeated those exact words to my sons.

As writers, the question is how much regional slang is too much in a novel? And if we use such terms, will our stories seem dated or be offensive to future generations? Granted there are many noteworthy books with regional dialects or patterns of speech to aide characterization. When it’s done well, it really enhances the tale. What about your work in progress? Will the words you write today stand the test of time?

The Wonders of Wilbur

In answer to this question, I consider the classics in children’s literature. The ever popular story about a pig named Wilbur in CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E. B. White was first published in 1952. In fact, the first paragraph is still used today for character development studies in writing courses.  And now with three films and a video game to it’s credit, the story continues to appeal to new generations of kids. School Library Journal named it as one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time in a 2012 poll. As an adult reader, I’m come to appreciate this book even more.

Consider the Classics

I’m reading my way through the Newberry Winners list and these stories are amazing. I recently finished the 1968 winner, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER.  The thought of two kids running away from home and hiding in a museum still peaks the imagination, even in today’s world. I find myself going back to these classics to carefully study the dialogue, plot structure and characterization. What makes them so magical?

In mainstream fiction, dialogue referencing “calling a cell” or “tattooed hunk” makes me wonder if that is the best choice of words. And exclamations of “Jesus Christ” or “Oh, God” just makes me cringe.

What I ‘d like to do in this blog post is keep gushing over the amazing award winning books in children’s literature, but I’ll stop here and encourage you to discover the stories from your childhood.  Used book stores are filled to the rafters with such titles, and some of the older classics are FREE as eBooks. Even though kid lit may not be the genre you normally read, take a minute to ponder how a story about a pig and a spider continues to entertain readers after 60 years.

What are some of your favorite characterizations using patterns of speech with slang or specific dialects?

Happy spring and happy writing!

2 thoughts on “Fixin’ to Act Ugly – Using Slang and Dialects in Stories

  1. As a writer of thrillers whose plots cross the Atlantic and Pacific before the last page, slang and emphasized dialect are desperately needed in order to keep the reader on the right continent. The thorny question for me is the use of expletives. I travel a lot by train and am frequently shaken by the language both men and women use in public without any embarrassment. But your comment was about accent, slang and regional dialect. We write as in the present day and as such lock our literature to the ‘now’ which tomorrow will be the ‘then’. If we do it well we will offer up to future generations a window on our present day society as did Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Such a prospect encourages me to, as best I can, ‘say it’ the way it is today, using the narrative to retain the quality and precision of our language.

  2. Pingback: Contention with the classics |

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