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.”
“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!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.