The Help Combats the “Don’t Write in Dialect” Rule

There are these cardinal writing rules that everyone chants like a mantra.  One of them is “write what you know” and if you’ve been following this blog you already know that I think that rule is a bunch of baloney.   Another one is “do not write in dialect.”  Or, at least, as this article warns, use it sparingly and use more diction than dialect because “it would be difficult to sell a book today written with such dialect because most modern readers don’t want to deal with it.”

I was one of those readers.  The only books I can think of that have dialect are The Cove, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Push.  As a child, I was forced to read The Cove and forced to finish it, but I literally could not tell you what the book was about because the dialect was so thick.  I didn’t mind dialect in Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it was restricted to the dialogue (rather than having the whole book, including narration, written in it) of a select few characters.  And I avoided reading Push completely because I couldn’t stand the idea of struggling through it.  Reading dialect sounds like homework and who wants to create homework for themselves during their pleasure reading time?

Then I took a linguistics class and for the end of the year essay you could either write a 15-page term paper or write a 5-page short story in a dialect of your choosing.  I chose the creative writing assignment and Ocracoke.  It’s an obscure dialect and I’ll be super impressed if anybody actually knew it before reading this post, so take the poll and I’ll reveal the results next time!

Anywho, for those of you who don’t know, Ocracoke is spoken by the inhabitants on Ocracoke Island which is part of the Outer Banks, North Carolina.  Their terminology is beautiful and unique with a smattering of Southern influence.  The most famous characteristic is how speakers pronounce “high tide.”  It comes out more like “hoi toide.”  Check out this slightly humorous video about the dialect in action.  I read Hoi toide on the Outer Banks: the story of the Ocracoke brogue , cover to cover for research purposes and wrote out a dozen pages of notes to use in the story.  Let me tell you, it probably would have been easier to write the term paper.

But I was really proud of that short story and thought that it would be enjoyable reading.  I took it to Juniper Summer Writing Institute last summer to get it work shopped.  Everyone agreed: the story was good, but there was too much dialect.  I needed to get rid of a lot of it and use Ocracoke strictly within the confines of quotation marks.  I accepted it as a writing truth.

But then I finished reading The Help last night in which every sentence is flavored with dialect.  I thought it worked better at giving each character a voice than just plain diction would.  It made the novel feel homey, the characters more dynamic, and like I was privy to those secret kitchen interviews myself.  The Help is sweeping the nation, popping up in everyone’s hands, purses, and back pockets so there’s got to be a lot of readers with opinions out there.  Do you think the dialect works in The Help?  Did you like it?  Understand it?  Get tripped up by it?  Did you even notice it?  Do you feel more comfortable reading other books written in dialect because of a positive experience with The Help?


Published by hannahkarena

author & book publishing person.

2 thoughts on “The Help Combats the “Don’t Write in Dialect” Rule

  1. My good friend, Maizie, who is a writer, lived in Mississippi, and is black was offended that only “The Help,” had a dialect, when many of the southern women and men had/have them. Isn’t that right? Maizie now lives in Richmond, VA, she has never had a dialect and she had “black” help.


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