Anna and the French Kiss

How Do I Deal with Accents in Dialogue?


Dear Editor….

I’d love to get your opinion on how to show accents. I have a lot of French and Spanish speakers in my realistic Young Adult story and I’m struggling with how to show that on the page. I felt good about playing with an accent in a short scene, but this book’s characters are all European except for the protagonist and her family, so it’s becoming a pain to sort out how to represent their nationalities in dialogue.

Hearing Things

Dear Hearing Things…

In general I feel written accents are visually distracting and thus detract from the reading experience rather than inject fun. Instead, try using wrong word choices, odd grammar and sentence structure, sprinkled-in foreign words, and regional/cultural idioms. But what if only their pronunciation of English is “off”? I like how Stephanie Perkins handles this in Anna and the French Kiss, with an American in a French boarding school. She doesn’t write accents even though it’s clear characters have accents. The English narrator thinks Please be in English. Please be in English. Please be in English while waiting for a Frenchman to reply. A Brit says “arse” for “ass.” A Frenchman translates on-the-fly: “There are loads of first-run theatres, but even more—what do you call them?—revival houses.” In Anna, character nationalities are represented in dialogue but readers aren’t distracted from the content or jarred out of the “zone.”

Happy writing!
The Editor