Writing Tips

How to Write Stuttering

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.

Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Stutter

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:

S…s-ample

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

  1. Stuttering occurs on the first sound of the word— stuttering will not occur midword
  2. Stuttering happens on the first sound– not the first full syllable (s…s-ample NOT sam…sam-ple)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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.”)
  6. 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.”)
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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?

God bless,

Gabrielle

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20 thoughts on “How to Write Stuttering”

  1. Thanks for this, Gabrielle. My main character in one of my novels actually has a stutter and as I was writing the first draft I struggled a lot with how to portray his stutter. This is really helpful!

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  2. Hi, when writing a stutter into vocabulary, I suggest reading it out loud to see if it seems genuine. I have a stutter myself so it’s kind of annoying when people portray us as slow or make us stutter on every other word. Great tips!

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    1. I’m glad you like my tips. It really frustrates me when people assume my dad is slow (he is actually extremely observant and smart), so I wanted to make sure to point that out to writers. Reading dialogue out loud is always a good idea; great tip.

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  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I actually have a minor character that, in my mind, I can hear his stutter in certain situations but I haven’t been able to capture it on the page in any way that seemed right. This was very helpful.

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  4. Gabrielle, this is an excellent article! My son stutters and I am sensitive to how speech is used in characterization. I’d love to see more writers portraying stuttering in a positive way — not as a tool to show nervousness, ineptitude, or as a disguise — because these people develop tremendous courage and compassion. Another thing people forget is that someone who stutters isn’t always shy or quiet (the stereo type). One thing I wanted to mention is that some people do repeat a whole syllable. My son goes by Jon because he gets stuck on the second vowel in Jonathan (Jon…aathan, sometimes Jon, Jon, Jon… aathan). Plus, lucky for him, intense emotion like anger makes him perfectly smooth, but I doubt that would come across as believable in fiction. 😉 Thanks again for educating writers on how to write disfluency. I really hope to see characters who stutter AND show how amazing they are! Maybe you can write another article on how friends and family interact, and what people should not do (like finish the sentence).

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    1. Great points, Sara. My dad (who stutters) actually pulled me aside the other day to ask me why I was shy. He said that he could never imagine why anyone would be shy if they did not have a physical impediment like a stutter. It was very interesting to hear.
      Thanks for the correction.
      I doubt I will rewrite another article on stuttering, but maybe you can write one for your blog 😉 I’d love to read it.

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  5. I loved your article. Such helpful hints. My son stops stuttering when he is furious. So there is variation there too. Thank you.

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  6. Thanks for this article, it really enlightened me! I have a question, since you’re close to someone who stutters. I’m not sure if your dad is the same or not, but do you know if some people who stutter do so less and/or completely lose their stutter when in certain circumstances? For example, if they are with a close friend or sibling with whom they feel very comfortable, or if they have a passion for stand up poetry or singing, or talking about something they love- could a person who stutters NOT stutter in circumstances like these? Thanks so much for the article and any advice you can give me!

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  7. I just stumbled upon your blog — how awesome! I can’t wait to explore it more! I recently finished a short novel where one of the main characters had a stutter. It was quite interesting to have “Prince-Charming-with-a-stutter.” I’m a Christian teen too! A writer. An INFP. Nice to meet you, Miss Gabrielle. 🙂

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  8. An excellent article, full of good information I can put to good use with an upcoming (eventually) character. Thank you!

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