As I worked to develop some of my minor characters, I decided to give one a stutter. Then I had to figure out how to write a stutter. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of resources to tap into for my research– one of my biggest resources has been my father who had a stutter for all his life.
But before we beginning talking specifically about stuttering, there is one very important rule for writing any dialogue that we need to remember:
Don’t go overboard with phonetics
It is a basic rule for respecting your reader’s tolerance level. You should never write speech exactly as it is pronounced if you are writing a character with an accent or a stutter because it will kill your reader’s brain. I stumbled across one blogger who enthusiastically declared, “I r-r-recom-m-mend you wr-write st-st-stuttering like th-this,” and then proceeded to write the entire article in that fashion. I almost hired an assassin (either to take him out or to take me out– after reading his article, I did not care which.)
Your reader is smart, so just occasionally remind your reader of the stutter. Readers will fill in the blanks spaces, and no one wants to read something that reads exactly like a stutter sounds.
So how do you write the actual stuttering? Our overly-enthusiastic friend r-r-recom-mended dashes, but is that the best way? Is that actually how a stutter sounds?
There are actually three different types of stuttering: Repetition, Prolongation, and Blocks. Since most writers will only need or use one, I want to focus on writing blocks since I have a man on the inside. My father’s stuttering takes the form of blocks, and after sitting down with him and pestering him with questions, we combined perspectives and came up with a punctuation for stuttering:
Punctuation needs to be simple, and dashes (s-s-ample) also can work, but my dad liked this option best because the ellipsis (…) draws out the first sound and then the dash throws you into the full word. This phonetic depiction represents the sound of stuttering pretty well. However, there is some compromise for our readers here. More often than not, stuttering actually occurs several times before the word actually comes out (s…s…s…s-ample), but this is going to frustrate readers, and I think the one ellipsis and one dash gets the point across in the most effective way.
Rules for Stuttering
- Stuttering occurs on the first sound of the word— stuttering will not occur midword
- Stuttering happens on the first sound– not the first full syllable (s…s-ample NOT sam…sam-ple)
- Do not write a stutter more than once in a single sentence or three times in a single paragraph (in a situation with high stress, you might be able to get away with two stutters in one sentences and up to five in one paragraph, but don’t do this often)
- Chose 3-7 sounds for your character to struggle with: People who stutter consistently tend to get blocks on particular sounds (For my dad, these particular sounds are b, p, k, w, the soft g, and ah as in audio)
- People who stutter often back up and try to get a “running start” when they reach a block (ex: “I would like you to g… like you to g-go to the park.”)
- Another strategy for stuttering is to use another (often imperfect) synonym for the word they are struggling with (ex: “You look g…g… really pretty tonight.”)
- Under higher stress, the stutter will be more frequent; under low stress, many don’t stutter at all, so don’t feel obligated to have your character stutter in every single conversation
- If you use the dialogue tag, “he stuttered,” do not write the stutter in the quote: If you write the stutter in the dialogue, don’t say “he stuttered.” Your reader is smart– you don’t need to beat them over the head with a stick for them to understand that your character stutters
- Do not write a stutter in thoughts: This is major– people who stutter think normally and many are extremely smart. Some people automatically assume that slow speech means a slow mind. This is not true in the slightest, but the misunderstanding is something that many people who stutter have to deal with, and it is extremely insulting.
Also, in my interview with my dad, I learned that you cannot join the military if you have a stutter. I think that fact could be really interesting for character development or motivation, so I’ll leave it here.
So have you ever written a character with a stutter? Would you consider it?