anon asked: How do you write for a drunk person realistically when you have never been drunk yourself?
How do you write a death scene if you’ve never died? You pretend, imagine, and do your research.
But, since you asked about drunkenness specifically, we’ll tackle some of that research for you.
There seems to be two schools of thought for writing drunken dialogue: the Slurred Speech Supporters and the Descriptive Drunkenness Advocates.
Slurred Speech Supporters prefer to visually portray drunkenness to the reader. A few examples:
- “H-h-h-heeeeey! Wheeeere d’ya think yeeeeer goin’?” he slurred, jabbing a finger into Sam’s chest.
Here you can see hyphens between Hs, lengthy strings of the letter E, and a couple of instances of dropped or combined words using apostrophes. This is an extremely visual representation of drunken dialogue, but be advised: this style can become tedious to the reader.
- “Iamsickofyourshit,” Dennis said, his words tumbling from his mouth in a rush of barely distinguishable syllables.
By cramming all of the words together in Dennis’ dialogue, you are visually representing the pace of speech. Be careful, choose your words wisely if you plan to omit spacing in a line, because the reader may have a difficult time with words with many syllables, rare words, or contractions.
- “Gerroff me!” he said. “I’m ash sober ash ‘m gonna git. And nuffink I - wait wait wait - nuffink you can do ‘boutit.” And he ambled back to the bar without so much as hiccup in her direction.
Making up “combo words” is another very popular method of visualizing drunken speech. Gerroff, gonna, nuffink, and ‘boutit are all combo words. This dialogue also has misspelled words to encourage a slurred reading, namely ash (words with S sounds in them may have their Ss replaced with Sh or Ch), ‘m (dropping a letter before or after the apostrophe in a contraction can be confusing, but it certainly adds to the slurred look of the dialgoue), and git (Is and Es may be interchangeable, depending on your taste and the usual speech of the character while not drunk). You can also change Th to D in words, usually those beginning with Th. Notice as well the lack of comma punctuation in “wait wait wait” and the character’s confusion between I and you in the dialogue.
- Daisy took the shot glass back from Quentin, sloshing vodka all over both of them. “I’m not drunk how dare you I’m the soberest girl in this room!”
The complete lack of internal punctuation in this sentence (or three sentences, as it were) lends a very visual slur to Daisy’s speech. The sentences don’t end on the page, so your audience doesn’t hear individual sentences when they read the dialogue.
If you’re trying to figure out where slurred speech might go in a line of dialogue, write it normally then say it aloud with your tongue stuck firmly to the bottom of your mouth. You can also place your tongue between your teeth on the right or left side of your mouth, or try speaking with your mouth full of food. Any way you do this, you’re going to sound like you have a speech impediment, not like you’re drunk. That’s ok, we’re just trying to get an approximation of where the slurs would realistically go.
Over-enunciate and mark the places where a nice, staccato K or T might flavor the dialogue well. Let your mouth be loose and say the line again, this time paying attention to where you have problems getting the word out clearly and mark those words for slurring or for word combos. For places to put Sh or Ch instead of S sounds, close your mouth and say the line through your teeth. The Ss should come out as slightly more pronounced, so you’ll be able to hear candidate for word slurring a bit better. Try using these techniques on this sentences:
- I’m going to go home and sleep it off just like you suggested.
- You’re not the boss of me!
- When I finish my drink, I think I’ll jump off the roof into the pool.
On to the Descriptive Drunkenness Advocates. These writers argue that not every drunk person is slurring up a storm and making up new words in their drunken state. They prefer to minimize the visual slurs in their dialogue (or completely omit them), and simply embroider descriptively around dialogue or use dialogue indicators to make it clear to the reader that the character is hammered. We’ll show you what we mean:
- Collin stumbled forward and grabbed a lamppost for support. He clung there, slack-jawed and slumped over, for a long time before he said, “You can’t leave me here, Jane.” His red solo cup slid from his hand to plunk pitifully on the sidewalk at his feet.
Here we can tell that there’s something definitely wrong with Collin. He needs help from a lamppost to stay upright, so he’s either sick or drunk. By the last line of the example, the reader has pieced together the red solo cup, the universal symbol of “party”, and the slinky-like behavior and concluded that Collin is probably drunk.
- “I’m going to a pance darty! Wanna come?”
Toss in a spoonerism (or “a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect”) for more light-hearted drunkenness. You can also be freer with slang words like wanna or gonna or ain’t because the character is too drunk to worry about correct grammar or enunciation with the sixth scotch and soda in hand.
- Carley leaned over to talk in my ear but did not trouble to lower her voice much. I could smell the wine on her breath; her teeth had a slightly purple tinge. “Yeah, and that’s when Lisa told me she slept with Greg and Jordan on the same night! Do you believe it? What a whore!” Silence had swept through the crowded room as she spoke, and over by the kitchen counter I spotted Lisa holding a broken glass in her fist, her face contorted with shock and rage.
Oh dear. Carley has blabbed a secret. Drunk people do that. Notice also the use of yeah, a slang word, and the description of Carley’s breath and wine-washed teeth. Drunk people speak inappropriately. Consider exhibiting racism, sexism, lack of confidence in another character, affection for another character, and so on in your dialogue with a drunk character.
- “What’s wrong with your voice?” asked Nan.
“Nothing’s wrong with my voice. I’m perfectly fine in my voice,” said Kari, trying to sound as sober as possible.
We love this example from the NaNoWriMo forums. Check out the word repetition and the weird phrasing here. “Notice how Kari repeats the word voice? And the phrase ‘I’m perfectly fine in my voice’ is a little odd. It’s little things like that.” This is a very nuanced way of exhibiting drunkenness.
Drunken physicality is pretty easy. Very pronounced drunken physicality will include falling, flailing, and stumbling. Drunk people also stereotypically puke, fall asleep suddenly, and shout or laugh a lot. You can tone this down to the point of non-existence if you like, depending on the character. Sometimes drumming fingers or a slightly-parted mouth or a woman walking in heels like they’re stilts will suffice to describe drunken physicality.
Drunk people often have personalities that do not coincide with that of their sober selves. This change is a sliding scale, ranging from a calm, civil person who, when drunk, violently kills people (the Jekyll and Hyde) to a noisy person who becomes more reserved while drunk. Since alcohol loosens your inhibitions, many people reveal their inner selves when very drunk, but some don’t. We’d say go with what progresses your plot.
Remember, people may behave differently while drunk, but they also behave differently in every situation and with different characters. The way your drunk character behaves in a knife fight will be different than at a party surrounded by friends and again different if he is preparing to commit suicide. See what we mean? A character will also behave differently while drunk around his parents vs. strangers vs. his best friend. Consider all of these factors before writing your scene.
Here are some articles to help you learn more about drunken behavior:
- Five Things Drunk People Like to Do
- How to Write a Drunk Character
- The Different Types of Drunk You Can Be
- The Ten Worst Types of Drunk
Beyond all of this, our best advice to you is to get some first-hand experience. If you don’t drink, or you’re not old enough to drink yet, people watch at the bars of restaurants or at house parties. Hang out with drunk people and take notes. You can even watch videos of drunk people on YouTube (stay away from movies, where people are only acting drunk).
Writing drunkenness is a matter of style, and it’ll be down to you to figure out how you do it. Play with different methods of writing drunkenness until you come up with a mix that suits you, then stick with it. If characters visually slur in one scene, you should write drunkenness in the same way in other scenes as well. Consistency is key here, especially if you have one character getting drunk several times. His emotions and the circumstances may change, but they way that you write drunkenness should not.
Thank you for your question, anon. We hope this provided you with a starting point for developing your style for writing drunk characters!
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