My characters talk, I hope, like real people. I listen to people’s conversations (yeah, eavesdrop) when I am out and sometimes I pick up a quirky saying or a person’s unusual habit, like lower jaw movement, biting on the tip of a protruding tongue, pinching an earlobe, all while talking or listening. Things people often don’t realize they are doing.

Included in these are speech patterns: Gonna, wanna, ‘em, ain’t, nah, and so forth. Maybe even dropping the “g” of a word ending in ing.

My question for discussion is, when is it too much? When does it get in the way of the reader? Any suggestions? How do you handle it? I am open to suggestions.

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I hate rules. It is entirely in order to use "asked," "muttered," "hissed," "whispered," etc. It is also in order to use the occasional adverb with "said." On the whole, I would say, use "said" sparingly. Nothing worse than a string of short sentences all ending in "he said." Robert B. Parker has some doozies.
As a reader, I appreciate the speech patterns of different people and enjoy reading them as long as it's still pretty easy to read and I don't have to stop and translate (if that makes sense). Sometimes it's too much and it's work for me to get through it.
My first effort at my series started with my lead character getting hit in the mouth and trying to communicate around the injury. My local critique group lined up right behind the prof who reviewed it. Too much phonetic mush was too hard on the reader. It was better to limit it to one or two lines of dialogue and counter that with the reaction of the person trying to understand the speaker, then to slog through scenes sounding out the garbled gab. One member of my group is a romance writer and she tossed me a paperback period piece with a cross-cultural lovers. She said,"You don't have to like the genre, but respect how the author keeps the story flowing without tripping over everybody's accents." It was a very teachable moment.
Kary, thank you for taking the time to offer your good advice. My concern isn't as serious as what your problem put forth. I think your advice is correct, limit, but set the example.
Read it aloud. That will tell you a lot. If the writing gets in the way of easy reading - such as making you stop to figure out what you meant that character to say - then cut it back.

I also try to make one pass through anything I write by just looking at each character's dialog. Take Character A, get into his head, and go through just cherry picking his lines. Take a break, then do the same with Character B. This helps to keep all the characters from sounding the same.
Dana, thank you. The read aloud is a good theory and I do use it.
If there are other people at home when you write, you might want to tip them off to what you're doing, until they're used to it. I think my current girlfriend was ready to call 911 a couple of times after hearing what sounded to her like arguments coming from my office, running up to see what was wrong, and finding no one there but me.
I'm not yet published, but I think, when it comes to dialogue, the important point to remember is that written dialogue isn't the same as spoken language. Dialogue is a representation of spoken language that's been distilled to it's finest points.

During your "research" (Writers never "eavesdrop". We are "conducting field research in the art of language communication."), you've probably noticed a lot of throw-away words -- ah, uh, um, like, ya know -- as well as the throw-away ice-breaker topics -- traffic, weather, the best place in town for pancakes -- that rarely appear in written dialogue. These extraneous bits of conversational fluff must be removed from written dialogue in order for it to "sound" (read) like actual speech. Speech patterns, such as those you've mentioned, can turn a reader off, depending on what character is using them and how often. If the dialogue is full of shortened words, unusual spellings or verbs such as ain't, it can lead to frustration and that can lead to the reader putting your book down. We, as writers, don't ever want to give the reader a reason to put the book down.

For example, my novels are set in the south (Mississippi, specifically) where unusual speech patterns run amok. However, I only use these unusual patterns for one character and the reason I chose to do it this way was so that his dialogue carries a greater impact with the reader. I don't fill his dialogue with dropped "g's," "gonna's," "wanna's," and "ain't's" but sprinkle them around for effect, just to remind the reader that he's not as educated as the rest of the characters. Plus, since he's the antagonist, it allows me to play with his dialogue a little bit and when he meets the protagonist in the final showdown, the reader can easily distinguish who is who on the page when the words start flying.

My best advice: Read the dialogue aloud. If it makes you stumble, revise it. Have someone else read it or listen to you read it aloud. If they are thrown off by any of it, revise it.
JK, I agree with most of what you said, but I have found that sprinkling some verbage traits into diologue helps ID the talker, if it's a back-and-forth between two or three characters and can set up the tone - tough, good, bad, angery - for the character. But you are right, too many hums, etc., can bother the ear, so you gotta imagine what it can do to the reader's eye! Thanks for taking the time to reply.
One thing you might want to consider with dialogue is the narration - it should fit. I had an editor tell me that it was okay to use slang and break rules in dialogue, but not narration. I couldn't disagree more (of course, I always write from a particular character's point of view, so I want it in that character's voice).

The reason for that rule about only using "said" is because the situation and the dialogue spoken should be clear - if you need to describe HOW someone is saying something then maybe we don't know that character very well. Also, no one ever uses anything other than said out loud (well, maybe, maybe an asked, but not very often).

A lot of writers (mostly Elmore Leonard) who get compliments about their dialogue usually have narration that goes with it smoothly.

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