Dialogue, Part 1: Keeping it Real … ish

Written by Addicted to Edward

Dialogue can make or break your story. Why is dialogue so important? It’s what happens when two or more of your characters interact. It’s your story coming to life. Story is conflict. Sustaining conflict through a lengthy story without your characters actually speaking to each would be extremely difficult.

This article is the first in a series of three about dialogue. Writing effective and realistic dialogue is a huge topic about which entire books have been written, so these articles will only scratch the surface. In this first article, the focus is writing realistic dialogue. The next article will cover writing dialogue that does the heavy lifting in your story: moving plot, defining characters, and hooking in your readers. The nuts and bolts — things like punctuation and dialogue tags — will be the topic of the final article in the series.

What is Realistic Dialogue?

Dialogue that is realistic sounds like real-life conversations, not an exact copy. If you’ve ever stopped to listen — really listen — to spoken conversations, you know that it’s full of incomplete thoughts, “uhs” and “ums,” pauses, interruptions, and other oddities that would make reading it painful.

Does that mean that eavesdropping on strangers at the next dinner table will be useless for developing your dialogue skills? Absolutely not! Even if you wouldn’t duplicate the conversation word-for-word, the more you listen to real conversation, the better you’ll learn to imitate it. Besides, eavesdropping is a fun way to come up with new story ideas.

This article discusses six techniques for improving your dialogue:

Don’t Call Me by Name

Do Not Be So Formal

Avoid the “As You Know” Conversation

Nobody Likes a Speech

Using the Bad Grammars is A-OK

Use a Light Touch When the Talkin’ is Different or D-d-d-ifficult

Don’t Call Me by Name

This is one of the most common dialogue mistakes I see when I beta stories. Consider the following example. It’s taken to an extreme to make it obvious.

“You don’t have to pretend anymore, Edward.”

“Bella, I wish I didn’t have to pretend.”

“I’m sorry, Edward. This is probably so awkward for you. And you look so thirsty, too. You shouldn’t have to be here with me.”

“I want to be here with you, Bella.”

“Edward, you have to let go of this guilt. It doesn’t do you any good to be here, suffering.”

“Do you want me to leave, Bella?”

“Edward, I don’t want you to be here because you feel some obligation or duty or guilt or whatever.”

Who talks like that? How often do you say the name of the person you’re speaking to? When you’re calling them from a distance or trying to get their attention, perhaps. When you’re angry or incredulous at what someone did. Very deliberately for emphasis. The same should be true for your written dialogue.

What are the reasons authors put too much direct address in their stories?

  • To increase the intensity

The important thing to remember is that any technique, when used over and over, will lose it’s effectiveness. If you are trying to emphasize a particular passage of dialogue, make sure whatever technique you’re using isn’t used throughout the rest of your story.

  • To keep track of who’s speaking to whom

How do we manage in real life to know who someone is speaking to? Well, it’s pretty obvious if there’s only two people involved in the conversation. But what if there are three or more people? Body language, word choice, and tone of voice are some of the clues we use. Often our brain registers these so quickly we aren’t even aware of them.

How does that translate into fiction? We have dialogue tags. We can have our characters perform small actions. These actions can be used to identify the speaker, but they can also be used to indicate who the speaker is addressing.

This is an easy problem to fix in the revision stage. If your writing is flowing and you’ve got direct addresses in every line of dialogue, just go with it. When you come back to it later, you can remove all those references. Be ruthless. Keep only the ones that sound natural (a parent is more likely to use their child’s name than their spouse’s, for example) or the ones you feel are needed for emphasis. Add in dialogue tags or actions if you feel clarity is needed.

Do Not Be So Formal

When was the last time you heard someone speak like this:

“Wait, I do not understand. You said you did not want me, that I was not good for you, that –”

Very simple fix — use contractions! There are exceptions, of course. It might make sense for your self-important professor to speak without contractions. And when he’s the only character speaking that way, it will stand out and characterize him effectively. Another example is a character who always speaks with contractions but for a particular sentence does not. When used sparingly like that, it’s a signal to your reader that your character means business!

Also in this category, make sure the vocabulary matches your character. Words that a rich seventy-year-old widow living in New England would use in every day conversation are very different than the words that a teenager in Texas would use.

Avoid the “As You Know” Conversation

I chuckle every time I watch CSI and one of the characters describes a routine forensic test while speaking to a fellow crime scene investigator. It’s clearly done solely for the purpose of educating the audience; experienced investigators already know that stuff.

I suspect CSI gets away with it because the show is otherwise engaging, the “As You Know” conversation is limited to a sentence or two, and the subject is of a technical matter the general audience would have no experience with. A way to avoid this would be to have the investigator explain the test to a suspect or other person not trained in forensics. If the CSI episode were a novel instead of a television show, that information would likely be conveyed in narrative form, rather than in a line of dialogue between characters.

Another example of this cringe-worthy technique is used in Breaking Dawn. Stephenie Meyer chooses to fade to black on the sex scenes, but she still wants her reader to have some idea what happened. So Bella essentially asks Edward what happened.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t Bella there? Did she black out? Was sex with Edward so good — or so bad — that she now suffers from amnesia? And if she can’t remember the sex, how does she know it was so good she wants to do it again? Could you imagine the real-life conversation if one partner asked the other about their love-making the previous night?

Could it have been avoided in Breaking Dawn? Certainly. One simple solution would be for the morning-after conversation to start with something along the lines of “I can’t believe you attacked that poor, defenseless pillow!” rather than “Why am I covered in feathers?”

This is one case where it might be easier to plan ahead and get it right in your first draft than in the revision. Depending on the story, you may have to change things around to make sure you don’t have a situation where the only way the reader can find out that vampires’ eyes turn black when thirsty is to have Carlisle tell this to Edward.

Nobody Likes a Speech

Okay, maybe there are some people who like speeches. Still, you should avoid having your character say more than three or four sentences without an interruption. That interruption can be another character literally interrupting the speaker. It can be an action taken by the speaker or the audience. It can be an outside interruption. The source doesn’t really matter; what matters is that the speech is broken up.

Why? For one thing, it’s just not realistic: when was the last time you said several sentences without moving or being interrupted? Another reason is readability. It may sound silly, but one reason readers like dialogue is because it breaks up large blocks of text. The eye loves white space; it’s somewhere to rest between blocks of narrative that run across the entire page.

Like any “rule,” there are exceptions. Sometimes, your character has a lot to say and just has to make a speech. Break it up with small actions where you can. Sometimes, you have a character whose signature is to make speeches. That doesn’t mean that every time he opens his mouth it has to be a speech. And it also doesn’t mean he won’t be interrupted by other annoyed characters tired of listening to him.

Using the Bad Grammars is A-OK

Who speaks in perfect grammar all the time, anyway? Who cares about grammar in dialogue? Throw all the rules out the window and run free!

Not so fast. Yes, incorrect grammar in dialogue is okay, but only to a point. For one thing, it has to fit your character. Not everyone would say “I’m getting that for me and him.” But, most people leave dangling prepositions when they speak. The grammatically incorrect “What are you thinking about?” sounds much more natural than the correct “About what are you thinking?”

Like everything in writing, you have to have reasons. Breaking the “rules” should be done purposefully, not by accident.

Along similar lines, most people drop the “g” at the end of “-ing” words and use other slang such as “gonna” instead of “going to.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever use “-ing” words in your dialogue. It would get tedious to read “What’s goin’ on?”, “Yer lettin’ ‘em go?”, etc. throughout an entire story.

Spell out the word properly. The reader will “hear” the characters speak them naturally in her mind. You could occasionally include a “gonna” or “yer” for emphasis, but as with anything done for emphasis, do it sparingly.

Use a Light Touch when the Talkin’ is Different or D-d-difficult

If dialogue should always reflect the character speaking, what happens when the character has an accent or speech impediment?

The same rule for emphasis applies: don’t go overboard. Reading story after story where Southern Jasper ends every sentence with “darlin’” gets tiresome. Not everything has to be spelled out phonetically to indicate he has a drawl or accent, either. Just remind the reader now and then. It could be a deliberate misspelling of a word or a comment from the point-of-view character, such as this example:

There were so many little details about Jasper that were special to me. I smiled in spite of my tears and said, “I’m going to miss your accent.”

“I’ll call you every night if you want. Then I won’t have to miss your Chicago accent, either.” He said “Chicago” the way I said it, “Sh-CAW-go,” rather than his usual “SHE-cah-go.”

The same goes for dialects, lisps, stuttering, and other speech quirks. Remember, when a technique is used sparingly, importance will be drawn to it. A few well-placed words will be enough for your reader to get it. When you use it, make it count. Make it define the character in a way that enhances the plot.

In Conclusion

There are many ways to make your dialogue sound more realistic. This article covered six of the most common dialogue issues I’ve seen as a beta. The key to writing realistic dialogue is to listen to how people speak and then imitate it rather than duplicate it.

References/More Information

Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton

Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing for Young Adults by Deborah Perlberg

Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

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