Writing Dialogue the Way People Speak
Over the years we’ve talked about writing dialogue.
We’ve looked at dialect, and about realism, and we’ve even commented on why people never say “goodbye” when hanging up the telephone in movies.
Producing good dialogue in a novel is tricky. This is especially so if the goal of the work is realism.
What is so difficult, you ask? Can’t you just walk down the street with a recorder in your hand? Can’t you simply listen in to phone conversations? Well, of course you can. And, with just a little effort, you can write dialogue that sounds precisely like what you hear out in the world.
The trouble is your reader won’t sit still for it.
Normal folks—you know, people like you… people like me—do not speak in full sentences. We confuse the issue with bad pronunciation or poor word choices. We make obscure cultural references. We talk with our mouths full. We make too-loud phone calls from echoic public toilet stalls.
Most of our conversation with friends and family isn’t verbal.
We backtrack, we explain ourselves, we draw diagrams, we make faces and we point.
Yes, we can do some of those extra-speech things in our writing. Some. Unless, however, our character is autistic and flailing hands or stumbling speech is essential to that person’s appearance in the story, you won’t get away with too much novelty.
The trick, and we’ve said this over and over, is to leave out what doesn’t forward the action. This, by the way, is the reason people don’t say “goodbye” on the phone, or, for that matter, close doors when walk into a house or apartment on TV or movies.
When you are out and about, and using your “writer’s ear” to pick up on dialogue much (if not most) of what you hear on the street is meaningless. It is certainly meaningless to you for lack of context, but experience shows us that we like to talk just to fill in empty (read quiet) space. Dialogue abhors a vacuum.
Words “spoken” in your novel, therefore, cannot be realistic.
The magic word for writing dialogue is not “reality”, but rather “verisimilitude”. We must craft dialogue that sounds like you might hear it on the street, but rather than being random mutterings or repeated observations, it must convey information that moves the story along.
Bottom line: if you write dialogue like people speak… even if you write dialogue like well-educated people speak, you will lose your reader.
When we speak in books, we must always deliver information.