Talk Amongst Yourselves: Realistic Dialogue

Saturday was Date Night (woohoo!) and while we were out, I realized a few things. First, I recognized that while going out to eat pre-baby was merely fun, it's now necessary to my sanity. Secondly, as nice as it was to eat someone else's cooking, having a real conversation with another adult was even better. And that got me to thinking about dialogue.

As writers, we do a lot of research. To write about the zoo, we take a field trip. Have a character on a farm? Check out one of a zillion sites on corn and the life cycle of the European cornborer. But we don't do a lot of research on how our characters talk. And it shows in our dialogue, which comes across as stilted, forced, hard to believe.

So as Al and I chatted, I kept half an ear (beware the cornborer) open to determine how real dialogue sounds. Here's what I came up with…

1. Dialogue isn't used to impart information that both people already know. This is the As-You-Know-Bob technique, and it drives me bonkers. Example: "As you know, Bob, the fall festival is coming up, where children will be bobbing for apples, begging for candy, and generally peeing their pants with excitement." This technique is ineffective because the reader can see that both Bob and his friend already know about the fall festival, so why would they be talking about it? They wouldn't. In real life, people don't tell each other things they both already know. Well, some people do, and hearing it is just as annoying as seeing it in print. If you need to tell your reader something, dialogue is a great way to do it as long as the scenario is realistic and not contrived: a superior debriefing a younger officer about a security situation; one friend telling another what she missed at last night's party, etc.

2. Dialogue doesn't exist in a dialogue-only void. Al and I had some good conversation, but it was interspersed with action: cutting meat, checking a cell phone for missed calls, holding a bone-dry glass upside-down in a vain attempt to get the waitress's attention. In writing, we include these interruptions via dialogue tags. Ex:
  • "I hope the portions are generous," I said, eyeing a passing dessert tray.
Tags are used to break up the dialogue, but they're also a great way to show emotions, details about the setting, and characterization. The key to writing them realistically is to strike a good balance. Too many tags slow the pace; too few, and all you've got is a supremely boring passage. Editing aloud will help you find that happy medium.

3. Dialogue doesn't always flow logically back and forth. When you analyze a conversation between two people, it's not a litany of questions and responses. People hedge and misdirect; they avoid certain questions or answer ones that weren't even posed. Here's an example from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:

In formal dialogue, questions are always clearly understood and answers are complete and responsive. Real life is rarely that neat. Consider the difference between:
"I don't know what you were thinking about, going into a place like that. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, I really am."

and

"What did you think you were doing, going into a place like that?"
"I'm all right. Really."

In the last example, the first speaker isn't asking what she really wants to know: are you all right? Yet the second person understands and responds to the unspoken question rather than what was asked. This is how people talk: they jump to conclusions, read into what others are saying, beat around the bush, misdirect, even lie. These techniques make dialogue feel real.

4. And finally: Dialogue should be specific to each character. A modern teen will use slang. A stuffy and formal character may not use contractions. Someone speaking in a newly-learned foreign language will leave out minor words, use incorrect ones, and phrase their sentences strangely. Consider the source: think carefully about each character and how he or she would talk. Write accordingly.

So now you all have an excuse to go on a date or out on the town with friends. Call it research, and have fun!

16 comments:

Lapillus said...

Another great post! Thanks!

Angela said...

Great post, Miz Becca. Dialogue is one aspect of writing that we probably don't work on hard enough. It's easy to take it for granted that because we all speak ourselves, we'll be able to write dialogue 'good enough.'

But, considering that half our novels are dialogue, it's definitely an element worth examining for ways to improve.

Now seriously, where did you eat, what did you have and how many times did you a) check the phone to see if the babysitter called or b) call the house to make sure the baby was all right?

lol

Bish Denham said...

Wonderful observation; a reminder to keep observing!

PJ Hoover said...

Perfect! I'll send the link to my husband!
It's so true. And reading dialog out loud really helps me, too!

Becca said...

I actually didn't call home at all; Al's parents are our babysitters, so I am completely at ease when we leave her with them. Thanks goodness :).

Zoe said...

Great post! (as always). I have one thing to add about slang though: use it with caution. The thing is that the slang has to feel real; rather than just a cliché of a demographic. The same goes for dialects. Slang needs 'bottled at the source' authenticity. The Australian novelist Tim Winton is, off the top of my head, someone who does this very well. And most of all, slang needs consistency. For example in a 'modernised' performance of Shakespeare, Hamlet saying 'yo whaddup?' one minute, then 'To be or not to be' the next is NOT consistency. When I write, unless I am on a day of rare inspiration, dialogue comes out pretty formal (my friends often accuse me of sounding like I have swallowed a dictionary when I talk). In the editing process I am going to have to work hard to get the balance right!

courtney said...

Yay Date Night! Great post, Becca! I especially love the As-You-Know-Bob reminder--easy to fall into that trap!

AES said...

I, personally, love writing dialogue. It's the part that comes the most naturally to me. The research, though... that's another story entirely! :)

Becca said...

thanks for the props, everyone! And Zoe, you're right. Slang is risky; you don't want to date yourself.

Marcia said...

This is right on. And funny example in #1. :)

About slang -- you have to be careful using contemporary slang, which might be forgotten by the time the book is published. But if you're writing historical fiction, you can use the slang of that period with no worries. Of COURSE it's obsolete.

C.R. Evers said...

Great observations! Also, I'll have to tell my hubby that going out to dinner can be a tax write off for literary research! Maybe we'll get to go out more often!

and I 2nd the statement about post-baby outings being a sanity staple!

Great post!

Christy

Becca said...

Marcia, that's one reason I like writing hf; in some ways, despite the research,it's actually easier.

CR, how old are your kids?

C.R. Evers said...

Hey becca! My kids are 2, 4 and 6. :0)

Christy

Becca said...

Excellent! We're hoping to have ours close together, too. Of course, that would be more up to God at this point than anything we could try and orchestrate ;).

Angela said...

I just love listening to people talk (and if I'm writing or typing at the time sometimes I record it) I feel like a spy! And when I go back and re-read it makes me remember so much more than the words.

I also like making up dialogue when I'm out and about people watching.

Stéphanie Noël said...

I'm guilty of super linear dialogues. I need to work on that! Great post, thank you!

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